30,000 Unsuspecting Rose Bowl Attendees Were Scooped Up in a Facial Recognition Test
Cameras gathered information on attendees’ gender, age, and whether they matched a list of suspicious persons
On New Year’s Day 2020, more than 90,000 college football fans piled into the Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena, California, to watch the Oregon Ducks play the Wisconsin Badgers.
It turns out some of those fans were being watched, too. Before they even entered the stadium, thousands of attendees were being captured by a facial recognition system in the Rose Bowl’s FanFest activity area by an ad tech company called VSBLTY.
Four cameras hidden underneath digital signs captured data on attendees, generating 30,000 points of data on how long they looked at advertisements, their gender and age, and an analysis to try and identify weapons or whether they were on a watch list of suspicious persons.
Three fans who attended the Rose Bowl game and spoke to OneZero said they didn’t remember seeing any notice that they were being surveilled.
It turns out those fans were being watched, too.
“I actually had no idea they were using that type of tech at the game nor was I informed that I would be recorded or analyzed by such tech,” said California resident Benjamin Mercke. “Actually, that’s incredibly concerning to me.”
The data gathering and surveillance operation has not been reported in the mainstream press before and was revealed after VSBLTY issued a press release of its findings. Neither VSBLTY nor the Rose Bowl Stadium responded to multiple requests for comment or questions about how data was gathered, whether fans were informed, and where the watch list of suspicious persons came from.
“Facts about fans, their habits and actions — in addition to demographic and psychographic information — will help plan audience activities as well as serve as a tool to validate the value of on-site advertising impressions to sponsors,” wrote Jay Hutton, VSBLTY’s CEO.
VSBLTY is a small, Philadelphia-based company that anticipates generating $15 million to $20 million in revenue in 2020, according to a company slide deck targeted at investors reviewed by OneZero. The company has fewer than 50 employees according to LinkedIn data. Despite its relatively small size, the company has contracts around the world, including conducting real-time facial recognition in Mexico City through a partnership with intelligent lighting company Energetika.
An unlisted YouTube video posted by Jan Talamo, the company’s chief creative officer, details the company’s smart city surveillance contract with Mexico City. The company claims that the system could scale live facial recognition to as many as three million CCTV cameras. As of February 2020, VSBLTY’s software had already been installed in 56 communities, the company said in a press release from February 5, 2020.
“Everybody who went by would stop and stare at it, and the software would start working.”
This isn’t the first time that facial recognition has been used at the Rose Bowl. At a Taylor Swift performance during a 2018 game, fans who stopped at a booth showing clips of the singer’s rehearsals were secretly recorded and analyzed against a list of hundreds of known stalkers, according to Rolling Stone.
“Everybody who went by would stop and stare at it, and the software would start working,” Mike Downing, chief security officer of Oak View Group, an advisory board for large stadiums like Madison Square Garden, told Rolling Stone.
VSBLTY’s technology works much the same way. According to promotional materials on the company’s website, VSBLTY pitches digital signs for advertisements as a way to get customers to look directly at a camera. That way, its algorithms can have a more accurate read when trying to determine a person’s age, race, and potential identity.
The company pitches its services specifically in sports arenas and concert venues. In promotional materials, VSBLTY highlights its work at Maryland’s FedExField, the home of the Washington Redskins. In one promotional video, facial recognition matches are tagged to a map of FedExField. In another video, fans can be seen walking by the security cameras for facial recognition. A representative for the team didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
“Because the cameras are positioned at the base of the display and fans look to the screens for information and advertising, a more accurate facial recognition is achieved versus traditional overhead cameras,” a video promoting the company’s facial recognition product says.