Event security: Safety in numbers

Safety image use

From protestors at shareholder meetings to suicide bombers at football games, live events are attractive targets. Tim Kridel explores how video surveillance is evolving to thwart those threats.

Terrorist attacks at music concerts or sports matches highlight the growing need for next-generation video surveillance technology capable of quickly identifying attackers—ideally before they’re able to carry out their plan.

In other cases, the threats are motivated by environmental concerns or celebrity obsessions. For example, businesses preparing for shareholder meetings or product-launch road shows could use video surveillance to identify activists sneaking into the venue to disrupt those events. Another is Taylor Swift’s use of facial recognition surveillance to identify stalkers among people going to her concerts.

“We’re getting more interest,” says Mary Haskett, co-founder and CEO of Blink Identity, a US-based company specialising in video surveillance with facial recognition capabilities. AnyVision, an AI specialist headquartered in Israel, is another vendor seeing demand. “Security and surveillance are definitely top of mind for operators of venues where large amounts of people gather,” says Max Constant, chief commercial officer at the company.

“Concerts, certainly, but also sports facilities, airports, casinos and city surveillance, to name a few,” he says. Taking surveillance on the road Arenas, convention centres and other event venues typically have video surveillance systems, but the quality and quantity of coverage varies widely.

Taking surveillance on the road

Arenas, convention centres and other event venues typically have video surveillance systems, but the quality and quantity of coverage varies widely.

“Some [stadiums] have remarkably few cameras,” says AJ Frazer, Agent Video Intelligence vice president of business development.

Rental and staging companies could add portable surveillance systems to their solution portfolios to augment a venue’s system. AnyVision is an example of how some vendors are developing portable solutions. “AnyVision has designed a Tactical Kit, which is our full Better Tomorrow solution in one portable pelican case,” Constant says. “This portable solution offers the full feature suite of our system as if it were on premise, except now you can use on the go,” he adds.

Taylor Swift used a portable system on her recent Reputation tour. At venue kiosks, fans who stopped to watch rehearsal videos had their faces scanned and checked against a database of her known stalkers, according to a Rolling Stone story.

So many variables, so little time

Portable systems come with a few caveats. One is legal: When using them for multinational tours, it’s critical to understand what each country’s privacy laws allow.

Another is environmental. Permanent installations have the luxury of spending weeks identifying the ideal camera locations and figuring out how to deal with variables such as how ambient lighting changes as the sun waxes and wanes through a stadium concourse. A portable system is severely limited in terms of time and locations.

Blink Identity is an example of how surveillance vendors are working to address those challenges—and in ways that will benefit permanent installations as well.

“[We do] facial recognition in any lighting condition, which is really important for venues where it can be first thing in the morning at a festival or late at night, indoors or outdoors, [around] lasers, coloured lights, etc.” Haskett says. “Facial recognition traditionally does not perform well in really uncontrolled, ambient light conditions,” she adds.

Some event organisers have begun phasing out paper tickets in favour of digital versions that attendees can display on their smartphone at the gate. But there’s been fan backlash due to problems such as mobile network congestion when tens of thousands of other fans try to pull up their electronic tickets at the same time. And even if they all loaded instantaneously, fans still must wait in line to have them scanned, just like with a paper ticket. “Those [scans] can take five to seven seconds, which doesn’t sound like much until you’re talking about a large arena with tens of thousands of people,” Haskett says. “All of a sudden, that’s a long time.”

Facial recognition isn’t necessarily faster if attendees still have to queue up to be scanned, one by one. That’s one reason why Live Nation invested in Blink Identity, whose technology can identify ticketholders in half a second even when they’re walking— over 60 people per minute.

Blink Identity requires people to opt in by providing a selfie. How many people are willing to do that? Time will tell, but “fast pass” options at theme parks and airports suggest that a lot are willing to share their face and money rather than stand for a long time in a queue.

Finally, facial recognition also can be used to identify venue staff and other authorised people, such as media or a band’s road crew. Besides helping with security, that use case also can eliminate some manual processes, such as automatically verifying each employee’s time on task.

Does this stuff really work?

But as sophisticated as facial recognition is becoming, it still can be a tough sale to sceptical event organisers and venue owners. The technology is part of the broader video content analytics (VCA) field, which even vendors admit has often overpromised and underwhelmed.

“It’s come a long way,” Frazer says. “That’s a euphemism for ‘stuff is finally catching up to the promises that analytics providers have made over the last 10 years,” he adds.

So one challenge is convincing people that today’s facial recognition and other VCA technologies will successfully deliver on those promises.

“I think these [venue] operators are looking for the technology to actually work: are looking for accuracy and speed, first and foremost,” says AnyVision’s Constant. “We recognised early on that, if we could design an artificial intelligence (AI algorithm that would take away the burden of having to replace existing sensors or worry about poor lighting conditions or which angle you were pointing your camera, there would be enormous market interest — and an enormous impact in terms of actually solving many core problems.

“That’s what our flagship product, Better Tomorrow, does. We use existing customers’ cameras to do facial, body and object recognition.”

For large venues, VCA is a matter of when, not if, simply because the more cameras they install, the tougher it is to afford enough people to monitor all of those feeds. VCA can lighten that workload by monitoring for certain patterns and alerting humans when those occur, thus creating situational awareness. The trick is determining which patterns to tell the system to look for and highlight.

“If somebody pulls a gun, everybody in the crowd runs,” Frazer says. “You can detect that pattern, but you don’t know that’s an incident. All you know is that some behaviour has changed. But then you can pull up a camera and have an operator look at it.”

VCA also help speed up forensic investigations, such as identifying the person who dropped a bag with a bomb so security and police have a face to look for. Do that fast enough, and it could enable them to catch that person before he gets to an exit. So one capability to look for when comparing VCA solutions is how quickly it can search for certain attributes and then present the possibilities in a format that only a human can winnow down and act on.

“To do that, you have to have a true, metadata-driven search capability,” Frazer says. “[With] thumbnails presented to a security officer, they can scroll through a thousand in two minutes and say, ‘Why does that person have a big, bulky jacket at a July concert?’

“We’re nowhere close as an industry to being able to identify that kind of variant, let alone know that it’s odd. The brain is great at that.”