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MLB exploring camera tech to monitor face-mask usage at ballparks

Major League BaseballThere’s nothing at all creepy about MLB teams reportedly evaluating the use of cameras to monitor fan behavior when fans are allowed back into ballparks, as if the remote scanning of people happens every day.

What we have here is a case of an admirable goal being subsumed by questionable means. Here’s the story: According to Bloomberg, several MLB teams have been taking with a California startup called Airspace Systems Inc. about a camera system that would scan crowds and detect fans that are not wearing face masks at all, or wearing face masks improperly (i.e., under the nose or chin). Presumably that information would be passed along to ushers, who would then approach the fan and tell they to fix the problem or leave.

We’re not going to get into the politics of wearing face masks; we assume the experts are right when they recommend we wear them, and we will also assume that they will be required when MLB is allowed to bring fans back into the ballpark. So ensuring fans wear masks is a worthy goal. And in general Airspace Systems says its face-recognition systems won’t infringe on anyone’s rights, that its data won’t be tied to specific people, per Bloomberg:

The use of software to analyze people’s behavior on camera is contentious, too. Airspace’s system reviews people’s faces, but the results aren’t personally identifiable, the company said. Still, companies collecting data on their workers or customers in the name of public health should be required to set up privacy guardrails around how the information is used….

Jaz Banga started Airspace in 2015 with a focus on security software for drones. The company is backed by about $35 million in venture capital and counts the U.S. army, some airports and MLB teams as customers. Several months ago, customers began asking whether the tools could be redeployed to determine whether people were wearing masks and adhering to social distancing guidelines. Such a system would be able to cover a large facility without needing to hire or train staff to patrol….

Banga dismissed privacy concerns. Airspace’s software automatically pixelates faces so they’re unrecognizable, and the company has never done facial recognition, Banga said: “We don’t even know how to do it.”

This may be one of those situations where an attempt to save a few bucks may be outweighed by a more ethical approach to a sticky situation–especially when there are plenty of unemployed folks who could do with some work.

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