Download Festival: Facial recognition technology used at event could be coming to festivals nationwide

Several organisers want the technology, which scans the faces of everyone on site and matches the details with custody images across Europe

Music festivals across the country could soon scan the faces of everyone on site after Leicestershire police admitted several organisers want the facial recognition software the force has introduced at this year’s Download festival at Donnington Park.

Around 90,000 people attending the five-day rock event in Derby will have their faces scanned by “strategically placed” cameras, which are then compared with a database of custody images across Europe.

The force has trialled the system since April 2014 in “controlled environments”, but this is the first time the portable NeoFace surveillance technology, made by NEC Corporation, is being used outdoors in the UK on this scale.

Leicestershire police said it hoped the system would enable them to find organised criminals who prey on festivalgoers who are often victims of theft.

DC Kevin Walker told the Police Oracle website: “Strategically placed cameras will scan faces at the Download Festival site in Donnington before comparing [them] with a database of custody images from across Europe.

“It is one of the first times it has been trialled outside, normally it is done in a controlled environment. There has been a lot of interest from other festivals and they are saying: ‘If it works, can we borrow it?’”

IT website The Register said it has been told the database of “lawfully held European custody photos” is “a stand-alone database of legally held custody photographs drawn together with partners in Europol”.

IT journalist John Leyden called the festival “a privacy invading tech test bed”.

Download’s own radio-frequency identification (RFID) wristbands, provided by German RFID specialists YouChip, means it is also the first festival to use a cashless system on site enabling people to pay for food, drink and merchandise.

However, the system crashed on 11 June as many registered their disgust on social media. Debbie Chapman wrote on the Download Facebook page: “Absolute joke. Cashless? More like clueless. Staff are ill equip to deal with this. Not enough support of the cashless info staff. Spent 2 hours in a queue to pretty much be told come back in the morning. No bed. No food. No good download absolute amateurs.”

The festival organisers said the cashless system encountered “some minor technical issues, effecting around 1% of attendees”, which resulted in extended queues that have now gone. “However, we would like to extend our apologies to any festivalgoers inconvenienced in any way by these issues and assure everyone that they have been and will continue to be dealt with by a brilliant and dedicated team of engineers and festival staff.”

There had been fears the wristbands would also be used to track people’s locations but the festival’s website denied this could happen as no GPS chip is included.

However Raj Samani, chief technology officer at Intel Security, told The Register: “There is a risk that RFID tags could be used for the profiling and/or tracking of individuals because identifiers could be used to re-identify a particular individual.

“It is important for consumers to be made aware of the policy, and give their consent for the tags to be made operational. Without appropriate consent retailers who pass RFID tags to customers without automatically deactivating or removing them may enable this risk of RFID tags being used for tracking individuals.”

Leicestershire police has successfully reduced crime at the Download festival from 327 incidents in 2007 to 91 last year.

A spokeswoman for the force said: “[The facial recognition system] does not capture or save images. It compares them to a database that has been put together solely for this event and will be destroyed by the middle of next week.

“As part of the policing operation around the Download festival, Leicestershire Police work to remove people from the site if they have come to commit crime and not enjoy the music. Our intelligence officers work very closely with the organisers of the festival, Live Nation, and the security company, Showsec, to keep crime at the event low. Having your picture taken at Download is a condition of entry and is stated on every ticket.  There are a number of tactics the police use to identify criminal activity and they do this to keep people safe and ensure that those who have come to the festival to enjoy the music, can do so without becoming a victim of crime.”