Surveillance

Taylor Swift ‘spying on fans’ using face recognition technology, claims Rolling Stone report

  • Star said to use the technology as an anti-stalking measure, but critics argue it is not perfect and could cause security staff to target innocent people
PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 December, 2018, 1:18pm
UPDATED : Friday, 14 December, 2018, 7:31pm

Taylor Swift secretly spying on her fans using facial recognition technology might sound like science fiction – but Rolling Stone reported on Thursday that the pop star has been doing exactly that in an effort to root out stalkers.

Swift has stayed silent on the report, declining to comment to The Guardian and other news organisations. But the episode has raised ethical questions for civil rights groups concerned about privacy.

“Stalkers are a generally scary phenomenon and everyone understands why someone like Taylor Swift would want to be protected against them,” said Jay Stanley, the ACLU’s senior policy analyst. “But this does have larger implications. It is not about this one deployment, it is about where this is technology is headed.”

According to a study by Georgetown University in 2016, roughly 117 million people’s identities are already in facial recognition databases and there is minimal legal instruction on how that data can be used.

Whoever set up this system was using subterfuge to get people to look into a screen and record people’s faces without their knowledge
Jennifer Lynch, Electronic Frontier Foundation

“It is generally the wild west when it comes to the use of this technology,” Stanley said, adding that Illinois was the only US state with comprehensive laws on the books about how biometric technology can be accessed and used.

Critics are concerned about the implications.

The technology, Stanley explains, isn’t perfect and can cause security staff to target innocent people. There’s also the issue of how the data is collected, managed and stored, and whether it will be breached or shared.

“Even if they do everything right at the Taylor Swift concert, as we see this technology spread there are going to be a lot of problems along these lines,” he said.

Mary Haskett, co-founder of a facial recognition company called Blink Identity, insists the technology will make people’s lives better. Her company uses facial recognition to allow faster entry at events for people who have opted-in. The company hopes to expand into other sectors.

“We wanted to do something with a lot of respect to privacy and turn this into something people can use to make life easier,” she said.

Users enrol in the service by sending a selfie, and a small sensor “about half the size of a lunchbox” captures a person’s image as they walk by.

Haskett said most people are happy to opt-in to the system in the name of convenience, but she admitted the secrecy surrounding the Taylor Swift situation is unsettling.

Critics and advocates agree and are calling for a crackdown.

Taylor Swift’s new Delicate music video explores the darker side of fame and celebrity

“It appears that whoever set up this system was using subterfuge to get people to look into a screen and record people’s faces without their knowledge,” says Jennifer Lynch, surveillance litigation director at the advocacy organisation Electronic Frontier Foundation, adding that this is the first time she has heard about such secret use of the technology in the private sector.

She is concerned it could be more widespread: “If no one had said anything about this, how would we have found out about it?”

Aside from the obvious creepiness factor, Lynch said the move could make Swift and her team vulnerable to lawsuits if they are holding on to personably identifiable data that can be breached.

Taylor Swift is worth over US$300 million – so how does she spend it?

“She would be subject to any of the number of breach notification laws across the country and potentially subject to class action litigation,” she said, pointing to the data breaches at Target and Marriott hotels.

Lynch emphasised that the news should be a wake-up call for the US government. “This is stuff we have seen happen in China, and in the United Arab Emirates,” she said, “but not in the United States.”