Published time: September 18, 2013 19:16
Reuters / Eddie Keogh
Hockey fans in Washington state will have more to worry about this weekend than avoiding a puck to the face: the Department of Homeland Security will be testing out a new facial recognition system at an arena this Saturday.
The 6,000 seat Toyota Center in Kennewick, Washington will be the
site on Saturday for more than just the Tri-City American’s
season opener. In addition to hosting a junior ice hockey game,
the arena will also facilitate the testing of a DHS program
that’s raising concerns among privacy advocates.
Homeland Security will have a presence at Saturday’s game, but
won’t be conducting any pat-downs on patrons or even rooting for
the home team. Instead, DHS will utilize a sophisticated system
of cameras to collect pictures of attendees in real-time from as
far away as 100 meters and then match them up with images of
faces stored on a database.
The exercise will mark the latest drill for the DHS’ Biometric
Optical Surveillance System, or BOSS, and when it’s fully
operational it could be used to identify a person of interest
among a massive crowd in the span of only seconds.
With assistance from researchers at the Pacific Northwest
National Laboratory, DHS will attempt to quickly compare faces
caught on camera with the biometric information of 20 volunteers.
The other faces in the crowd — potentially 5,980 hockey fans —
will exist as background noise to see how accurate BOSS is when
it comes down to locating a person of interest.
This isn’t the first time that the DHS and PNNL teamed up with
the Toyota Center, but researchers are hoping that this endeavor
will be the most successful yet. The New York Times’ Charlie
Savage reported last month that the technology was tested
recently at the arena, but the government determined at the time
that the product “was not ready for a DHS
customer.” If it succeeds this time around, however,
it could open the door for deploying similar systems at
international crossings and other hubs across the United States
patrolled by DHS.
According to Savage, earlier testing proved unsuccessful because
it took operators roughly 30 seconds to identify a person caught
on camera with its database of photographic mug shots. Biometric
specialists who spoke to the Times told Savage that 30 seconds
“was far too long to process an image for security
purposes,” and he reported that, without a lightning-quick
turnaround, “accuracy numbers would result in the police going
out to question too many innocent people.”
Of course, the DHS isn’t exactly looking for terrorists at
Saturday’s game in Kennewick, a small city of under 100,000
residents that’s roughly 50 miles from Walla Walla, WA. As
surveillance camera with similar capabilities are increasingly
rolled out in public spaces across America, however, similar
technology could soon be implemented by small-town police
departments to pick people out of crowds who have been accused of
“This technology is always billed as antiterrorism, but then
it drifts into other applications,” Ginger McCall of the
Electronic Privacy Information Center told Savage for last
month’s report. “We need a real conversation about whether and
how we want this technology to be used, and now is the time for
In the case of this weekend’s event in Kennewick, attendees won’t
necessarily be allowed to debate the use of BOSS, but do have a
way out of sorts. Video will reportedly only be recorded in
certain corridors, and the PNNL paid for 46 seats in the area
where camera-shy patrons can sit in order to avoid being spotted.
“If they didn’t want to be videotaped, they could very easily
not be videotaped,” Nick Lombardo, a PNNL project manager,
told the Tri-City Herald.
The option to opt-out might not exist in the future, however.
VenuWorks’ Cory Pearson, executive director of the company which
operates the arena, told the Herald, “I think it’s in our best
interest to help facilitate the development of the
“It’s in everybody’s best interest,” said Pearson, who
added to the Herald that the testing stage could pave the way for
a product that will help facilities such as the Toyota Center
Meanwhile, the Federal Bureau of Investigation hopes that it will
have its state-of-the-art Next Generation Identification program
rolled out in 2014, which will ideally provide the FBI with a
database containing the biometric information of millions of
Americans. Law enforcement will then be able to use that trove of
data to compare persons of interest caught on film with images
already used on state drivers’ licenses and other governmental
A lawsuit against the FBI filed by the Electronic Frontier
Foundation over the NGI program is currently pending. In a
complaint filed earlier this year, the EFF wrote that “The
proposed new system would also allow law enforcement ‘to collect
and retain other images (such as those obtained from crime scene
security cameras’ and from family and friends) and would allow
submission of ‘civil photographs along with civil fingerprint
submissions that were collected for noncriminal purposes.”
“NGI will result in a massive expansion of government data
collection for both criminal and noncriminal purposes,” EFF
staff attorney Jennifer Lynch said in a statement at the time.
“Biometrics programs present critical threats to civil
liberties and privacy. Face-recognition technology is among the
most alarming new developments, because Americans cannot easily
take precautions against the covert, remote and mass capture of