MLB’s brave new facial recognition ticketing experiment


A handful of Major League Baseball teams are debuting technology this season that allows fans to use their faces, instead of paper or digital tickets, to gain access to a stadium — a significant offering that, depending on one’s personal viewpoint, likely falls somewhere between an incredibly welcome enhancement and an alarming harbinger of eroding personal privacy.

“This,” said Bill Schlough, chief technology officer for the San Francisco Giants, “is an absolute game-changer.”

“This,” said Caitlin Seeley George, campaigns and managing director of the digital rights advocacy group Fight for the Future, “is just one part of a massive problem that’s only getting bigger.”

Sports fans, like airline passengers or anyone who uses a smartphone, must increasingly ask themselves where to draw the line between technology that makes their experience easier and technology that may sacrifice considerable privacy. While any individual decision might seem small, the implications are far reaching for society because of how facial recognition has been abused in the past by businesses, governments and law enforcement. But comments from stadium goers at test sites suggest they are largely unconcerned, if not downright enthusiastic, about the change.

While there’s no doubt that the larger issue around facial recognition technology is layered, the basic impetus behind MLB’s plan is straightforward. Team and league executives talk often about “friction,” a catch-all term referring to any type of obstacle that gets in the way of a consumer — a fan — having the ideal experience at a game (and thus, presumably, spending more money).

Friction points range from slow-moving concourse crowds to weak Wi-Fi, but long lines — whether for bathrooms, beers or anything else — always draw the most complaints. So, over the past few years, MLB has pushed its clubs to address one of the oft-cited areas of friction at stadiums: actually getting into the ballpark.

A form of facial recognition is the result. The Phillies, Giants, Astros and Nationals are the first clubs to introduce what MLB calls “Go-Ahead Entry,” a league-backed program that was developed with NEC, a Japan-based technology company. Go-Ahead Entry combines with already-in-place, AI-based security screening to allow fans to walk into a stadium without going through a traditional metal detector or ticket-access point. Using advanced recognition software, fans who opt into the program don’t have to stop for anyone as they head to their seats.

“You don’t even have to break stride,” Schlough said. “We need to give this to our fans. The society we’re in today, the world we’re in today — it’s instant gratification. Nobody has the time for anything. Nobody wants to wait.”

Versions of that sentiment echo across all industries when it comes to technology. Replace “nobody wants to wait” with “nobody wants to take out their wallet,” and the conversation can move almost seamlessly from game tickets to ApplePay. Trading personal data for greater efficiency is something humans do constantly, whether it’s curated music streaming or going through a special security line at the airport.

To some, however, facial recognition technology presents a heightened concern with greater stakes. Fight for the Future protested the use of this technology when it was being tested in Philadelphia last season, and nine other groups that focus on privacy issues joined them in signing a petition decrying Go-Ahead Entry. More protests are expected at ballparks this season.

“Facial recognition technology is unsafe,” George said. “It can be discriminatory, and especially for these use cases where it’s being promoted as a tool for efficiency or convenience, it allows for the spread of this technology throughout our society.”

While many of the highest-profile problems involving facial recognition software and mistaken identities or racial bias stemmed from use by law enforcement (leading to several cities banning government use of the technology), there are very few places where private company use of facial recognition is currently prohibited. In the sports world, George pointed to several past situations that she believes highlight the potential for complications as MLB expands its use.

The most egregious was James Dolan, the owner of the Knicks and Rangers, using facial recognition software at Madison Square Garden and other venues his company owns to identify lawyers at firms involved in litigation against his company. Once the attorneys were identified, employees blocked them from attending games or concerts in Dolan-owned buildings.

Other instances are less egregious — and often have noble intentions but could still raise concerns over what actually happens to fans’ data once they turn it over. In Brazil, for example, soccer teams using similar software have given to the police, upon request, data that was collected as part of a fan ID program. Facial recognition cameras were used all over streets and at stadiums to monitor fans throughout the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. Italy’s top soccer league, Serie A, has used facial recognition cameras to identify fans they believe chant racist language at games.

Proponents of MLB’s program said they are well aware of the worries some fans may have around this kind of technology. In response, they highlight several points they believe are critical:

  • The program is optional. Fans can only take part if they register and upload a high-quality selfie of their face, meaning that fans who want to use scannable tickets can still do so. The high-quality picture also greatly reduces the types of incorrect matches that have been seen in law enforcement situations where grainy, lower-quality video is often used.

  • Actual pictures of fans’ faces aren’t saved or stored in a database. The technology analyzes a fan’s face and converts each selfie into a unique number, which is then associated with purchased tickets and compared to the number generated by the stadium cameras when a fan walks past them. The image itself is deleted.

  • Teams aren’t using fans’ faces or their biometric data for security or any other purpose than stadium access, and they aren’t selling that data to any other companies.

“This is not the type of facial recognition that’s scanning a crowd and specifically looking for certain kinds of people,” Karri Zaremba, a senior vice president at MLB, said. “It’s facial authentication. … That’s the only way in which it’s being utilized.”

“Having our fans’ trust is paramount,” she added.

That may be true. But that basic notion — trusting a private business like a baseball team or league — is where privacy advocates balk. While “facial authentication” may sound more benign than “facial recognition,” the technology that underpins it is similar, and there are no guarantees teams won’t change their minds about what do with — or whom to share with — the images and biometric data they get from fans in the future.

The boilerplate terms and conditions on a typical MLB ticket give the team exclusive and almost unlimited rights to own, use or broadcast the likeness of stadium goers in connection with the game, such as a “kiss cam” shot appearing on the jumbotron. But the agreement outlined for Go-Ahead Entry users stipulates that those terms don’t apply to photos uploaded for facial recognition purposes.

“Baseball was pretty insistent that we have what we call logical and physical separation of the data,” said Micah Willbrand, who is the vice president of digital identity at NEC. “The only data we hold is the template, the algorithm created from the image. We don’t have any data related to the consumer and baseball doesn’t have any data related to the template.”

Even with that separation, there is always a risk from hackers. And while both MLB and NEC say the separation of data considerably lessens the impact of a theoretical hack, George pointed out that potentially losing control over a person’s basic biometric data is clearly more significant than having a password or credit card — something that can be changed or replaced — compromised by a hack.

“Trust this, trust that — they’re all pinky promises that I just don’t trust,” George said. “Pinky promises by companies that are, in the end, driven by making money. That’s always their priority.”

As in other industries, the proliferation of facial recognition technology in sports is considerable. For years, stadiums have used the technology to help with tasks like identifying celebrities who might be in attendance, or sending personalized clips to fans who happen to randomly appear on the large video boards. Tennis venues have used the technology to pick out “courtsiders,” or sports bettors who try to subvert live betting on a particular match in much the same way that casinos use the technology to scan patrons in search of card-counters.

Baseball is not the first to utilize the technology for ticketing, either. Jeff Boehm, the chief executive of Massachusetts-based Wicket, said the company’s facial authentication software — which is similar, but not identical, to what’s being used by MLB — debuted at the Cleveland Browns’ stadium in 2020. Three years later, half of Cleveland’s season-ticket holders have already signed up for the program, clearly enamored with an entrance process that has been measured to be at least four times faster than waiting in the typical pre-kickoff queue. (Zaremba, the MLB executive, likened the baseball experience to a driver with EZ-Pass zooming past cars in the regular toll lanes.)

“Every season the Browns get more and more people, and it’s going to become the norm,” Boehm said. “The future is here.”

Boehm added that Wicket is currently used by a dozen NFL teams and 20 stadiums overall across the major American sports, and in some markets, the same technology that allows fans into the stadium is also being used to let them buy things while inside — including alcohol — if they link an ID and form of payment to their account, along with their picture. Boehm added that he’s “very hopeful” Wicket will have contracts with all 32 NFL teams by the end of 2024.

That type of spread mirrors increased facial recognition technology use in other parts of life. And George, the privacy advocate, understands the appeal of convenience. The challenge, she said, is convincing people that opting into a program that gets them into a stadium more quickly invites a greater chance for someone to be wrongly arrested or discriminated against when the same technology is used in a different way.

“I think in terms of ‘the cat’s out of the bag.’ Well, I think there’s still time to put the cat back in the bag,” she said. “Whether or not your face matches up with a scan at a ticket stand is one thing, but the potential of this technology to be used to determine what health benefits people should or shouldn’t get, or how likely they are to finish high school, or how likely they are to commit a crime, these seem like far off things, but this is actually technology that companies are trying to develop and offer right now.”

She added: “So things like baseball just make that kind of development easier.”


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