Sports and Surveillance

Increasingly we have seen mass surveillance measures being introduced at sports events, impeding the enjoyment of the right to privacy and right to participate in sporting life.

Long Read

Sports are a huge part of daily life for billions around the world, a fundamental aspect of the rich tapestry of the human experience.

Attending a major sporting event can be a formative experience in someone’s life, as a place to share in a communal culture.

Increasingly we have seen surveillance, and especially mass surveillance measures, being introduced at sports events impeding the enjoyment particularly of the right to privacy and right to participate in sporting life.

When we saw that the UN Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights recently made a call for submissions on the right to participate in sports, and we knew we had to share our findings on the use of surveillance on this right.

You can read the full submission by downloading it below, or you can explore the top line findings by reading on.

The use of facial recognition in sporting events

In the past few years, the use of facial recognition technology (FRT), among other technologies, in sporting events has grown significantly, not just for the purposes of ticketing and contactless concessions, but to monitor spectator behaviour.

In the top 100 football stadiums in the world, 25 use FRT alongside their video surveillance, with more and more running tests year on year.

The use of FRT by both police and private actors has a seismic impact on the way our society is monitored and policed. The roll out of such intrusive technology does not only pose significant privacy and data protection questions, but also ethical questions around whether modern democracies should ever permit its use. For example, the radical introduction of FRT will inevitably result in the normalisation of surveillance across all societal levels and accordingly cast a “chilling effect” on the exercise of fundamental rights.

There is precedent that the use of FRT in stadiums is unlawful. FC Metz allegedly used an experimental system to identify people who were subject to civil stadium bans, detect abandoned objects, and enhance counter-terror measures. In February 2021, the French Data Protection Authority CNIL ruled the use of facial recognition technology in the stadium to be unlawful. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has recommended states to ‘Never use facial recognition technology to identify those peacefully participating in an assembly’.

We have also seen the use of FRT already be used punitively to exclude individuals at sporting events. In early 2023, Madison Square Garden (MSG) earned headlines for using facial recognition technology to ban or kick out people with tickets to their events. A Long Island attorney was removed from a New York Knicks game in December 2022 after getting flagged by the FRT software, and a year later a New York Rangers fan was barred from watching his beloved team after his face was identified. The venue justifies banning the attorneys, many of whom aren’t personally involved in the lawsuits, because their presence somehow “creates an inherently adverse environment”. On the contrary, this creates a hostile environment for individuals who may be unaware that they may be perceived as a threat.

Chilling effect on participation in sporting events

Major sporting events like the World Cup and the Olympics have been vectors of dissent for centuries. They sit in a unique position of being truly international while being independent of government and intragovernmental structures. They are also watched by billions around the world, providing a perfect opportunity for spectators and athletes to voice their opinions and beliefs on a truly global level.

Protests and actions at major sporting events are intertwined with the resistance from marginalised communities. In 1968, US sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos protested their country’s treatment of black citizens during the men’s 200-meter award ceremony. They took their first- and third-placed podiums barefoot and, during the playing of the U.S. national anthem, raised a single black glove while bowing their heads. In 2016, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and other African-Americans in the National Football League (NFL) began kneeling during the US national anthem to protest systemic racism, a symbol that has endured to this day. In 2014, countless LGBTQIA+ athletes resisted Russian anti-gay laws around the Sochi Winter Olympics while rainbow pins and wearing rainbow nail polish.

This similar resistance to anti-LGBTQIA+ laws occurred during the 2022 Qatar World, but this time against the backdrop of one of the most heavily surveilled sporting events to date, with the Qatari government deployed video surveillance drones and more than 15,000 CCTV cameras. Reports emerged that individuals choosing to protest through wearing rainbow items of clothing were identified through video surveillance en mass, and intimidated.

Surveillance enables significant power imbalances and hinders people’s autonomy and dignity and creates an atmosphere of fear around speaking out. It creates an environment of suspicion and threat, which can cause people who are not engaged in any wrongdoing to change their behaviour, including the way they act, speak and communicate.

In doing so, it inhibits the legitimate exercise of our rights.

The looming threat of AI

We are now further seeing AI be added to the arsenal of surveillance, an even more opaque system that can process data at an alarming speed, profile people according to physical attributes such as perceived gender and race, clothing style, gait, etc.

This is the next step in complete, discriminatory, arbitrary, and abusive surveillance of public spaces. And it is being rolled out in Paris for the 2024 Olympics.

Alongside 7 other organisations, we filed an amicus curiae at the French constitutional court (Conseil d’état) expressing our concerns about the use of such intrusive surveillance technologies and urging the court to reconsider its use. Unfortunately, the French Constitutional Council issued its judgment, and found no violations of constitutional rights when it comes to the use of algorithmic video surveillance during and after the Olympics.

Beyond this, after the roll out of surveillance in extenuating circumstances such as Covid-19, it’s difficult for governments to roll those measures back. And a new law is already going ahead to authorise new experiments of AI surveillance long after the events end, for instance in the case of Olympics until 2027. Fortunately, our friends in France at La Quadrature du Net are challenging this.

Impacts on marginalised communities at sporting events

Furthermore, these systems deployed at sporting events pose risks to people participating from marginalised communities when placed in the hands of an actor with a disregard for fundamental human rights.

Back in 2018, two women were arrested attempting to attend a football event at Azadi stadium. News also emerged that the Stadium is currently equipped with 500 closed-circuit television cameras to spot women trying to sneak into the stadium disguised as men. It’s nothing new for women to be attempting to bypass the ban on them attending sporting events but having a camera for every 156 people to try and find and arrest these women is an excessive use of surveillance, and power.

What we want

Attending sporting events can be incredibly formative experiences in people’s lives around the world.

To be able to do this, people need to be free from the looming threat of surveillance, and the explicit and implicit burdens of that.

Stay tuned to find out more about our submission