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Download Fest goers were human guinea pigs in spy tech experiment, admit police

Mass surveillance exercise didn't catch a single criminal

Leicestershire Police has revealed the facial recognition technology it rolled out at Download Festival had no policing utility. Instead it was an experimental assessment opportunity, paid for – and carried out for the sole benefit of – software vendor NEC Corporation.

The roll-out of facial recognition technology at Download, organised between Blighty's plod and the multinational firm NEC Corporation, was completely for the latter's benefit, according to information The Register has seen through FOI requests.

When The Register reported that Leicestershire Police had attempted to secretly roll out a new facial recognition system at Download Festival in early June, the force's PR department initially claimed the system was being implemented to detect gangs of thieves, whom they claimed were known to target such events.

To stifle privacy fears, the force announced that, following the event, it had destroyed all of the information it had gathered – including the original comparison database, which was built a number of weeks prior to Download, and used specifically for the trial there.

Intelligence officers created the database by collecting the mugshots of between 1,200 and 1,600 offenders from across Europe who were known to target large music festivals to commit crime.

Talking to trade mag Police Oracle, Detective Constable Kevin Walker suggested the database was in high demand from other British music festivals. "There has also been a lot interest from other festivals and they are saying: 'If it works, can we borrow it?,'" he said.

The claim was designed to legitimise the use of the software. Documents seen by The Register suggests that reusing the database seems never to have been an option as it was not even named.

Additionally, the trial was not even being evaluated by Leicestershire Police, who told us that all evaluations are held by the vendor, NEC Corporation, which already provides the force with its mugshot-matching software.

Evidence from Leicestershire Police shows that none of the 90,000 attendees at the festival were matched with those in the criminal database. The force added to this disclosure that the facial recognition system was not part of the policing plan for the event.

Despite this, the force lauded the "controlled trial" as a success, as a number of officers and staff who had volunteered to have their photographs entered into the database were successfully picked out by it 77 times during the course of their duties in Donington Park.

No information was provided to contextualise this figure, such as the total number of times they should have been picked out, or how strenuously they attempted to test the "proof of concept" system.

The use of real-time facial recognition systems differs from the force's prior use case for the NeoFace suite, which compared the facial images of selected suspects against a database of custody photographs.

A police-operated nationwide database of mugshots has been widely criticised for unlawfully retaining innocent citizens' facial images, as well as lacking robust legal oversight.

However, the real-time application of facial recognition software to CCTV/IPTV footage, such as that implemented at Download, does not account for even initial controls over faces that are uploaded to the system.

Those people who were scanned had their faces input into the database in bulk and without any prior suspicion of having committed a crime. As many attendees have complained on the festival's official forums, their images were also input without their consent.

The subsequent outcry from members of the public and privacy campaigners came, "quite rightly" according to the Government's Surveillance Camera Commissioner, Tony Porter.

The scanning also drew criticism from headliners MUSE, whose album HAARP (2008) referenced the USA's High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program, an ionosphere communications and surveillance project.

Fuck Leicestershire Police for scanning our faces!

During a performance of Uprising, Matthew Bellamy offered his rockstar stage-complaints of Leicestershire Police's surveillance activities - at that time, ostensibly still for the purpose of policing.

MUSE at Download 2015

There is no regulation of facial recognition technology in the UK. Police forces, however, do have a statutory obligation to abide by the Surveillance Camera Code of Practice, an instrument created as part of the previous coalition government's Protection of Freedoms Act 2012.

The third guiding principle of the code of practice states that there must be "as much transparency in the use of a surveillance camera system as possible".

Additionally, the tenth guiding principle states:

People in public places should normally be made aware whenever they are being monitored by a surveillance camera system, who is undertaking the activity and the purpose for which that information is to be used.

This is an integral part of overt surveillance and is already a legal obligation under the 1998 [Data Protection] Act. Furthermore, such awareness on the part of the public supports and informs the concept of surveillance by consent.

Leicestershire Police told The Register: "The use of the cameras was made known to all individuals who attended the event. This information was clearly available to people purchasing tickets to the event and was in part reiterated on the rear of tickets."

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