Mark of the Beast Tech: Professional Sports Embracing Fingerprint Biometrics And Iris Scanning
Lazaro Torres, a die-hard Miami Heat fan, was scurrying to reach his seat before tip-off one night last month when he hit an all-too-common roadblock: Two dozen fans stirring impatiently in the security-check line. Not a problem. He slid into a special entrance line, laid two fingers on a print scanner and, with the Heat’s rapid blessing, cruised into the arena.
“It’s been great,” Torres, a 43-year-old season-ticket holder, said of the service, known as Clear, which offers queue-skipping privileges for six U.S. sports teams including New York’s Yankees and Mets baseball franchises. His interview was necessarily brief. “I’m running a little late."
Attending a game used to be a low-tech pleasure: Buy a ticket and grab a bleacher seat. Now, with metal detectors and bag checks standard at almost all major sporting venues, companies have begun offering biometric and other tools to create the equivalent of express security lanes like those in airports. Those fingerprints and iris scans also allow teams to track fans’ behavior and purchasing habits, helping them rake in more revenue and fatten profits while triggering at the same time the privacy concerns that dog this sort of technology in other parts of the economy.
Clear, owned by Alclear LLC, also provides similar security services at 16 airports, where passengers can get fast-tracked for $179 a year. At stadiums, teams pay a licensing fee and fans nothing.
Other companies offer streamlining at stadiums and other venues to government-vetted members of PreCheck, the Transportation Security Administration’s service for airline travelers. And Walt Disney Co. theme parks offer expedited fingerprint-based identity scanning to customers who’ve bought certain passes.
Security advocates and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security have been calling for stronger protection at large gatherings since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist strikes. Attacks such as the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013 that killed three people added urgency, said Lou Marciani, director of the National Center for Spectator Sports Safety and Security at the University of Southern Mississippi.
“Between training and processes and technology, we are trying our darnedest to harden arenas and marathons and high school sports,” Marciani said.
Safran SA’s MorphoTrust USA Inc. signs up travelers for the TSA’s PreCheck program, which entitles passengers to five years of streamlined airport screening after submitting to a background check, providing biometric data and paying $85. Since last year, MorphoTrust has been funneling PreCheck members into express security lanes at concerts under a contract with promoter Live Nation Entertainment Inc., said Charles Carroll, senior vice president for identity services.
Short lines are less attractive to terrorists, who have detonated bombs in nonsecure areas such as the outer lobby of the Brussels airport on March 22. And just as the TSA offers lighter security for PreCheck members -- allowing them to leave liquids and laptops in bags, for example -- MorphoTrust hopes by next year to offer sports fans similar perks.
“It will radically change how people enter sporting events,” Carroll said.
The increased monitoring raises broad issues about privacy in the digital age, according to Jennifer Lynch, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit civil liberties group. Fans seeking convenience may not understand the risks of having their whereabouts tracked or of the consequences if a company’s information is hacked or stolen, she said.
“I find this incredibly shocking,” Lynch said. “It appears to be the very beginning of a very large tracking program.”
So far, such concerns haven’t been reported by the companies and teams using the services. In fact, teams hoping to improve security controls over employees have also begun using advanced screening.
Iris-scanning equipment developed by EyeLock LLC is being used by the NBA’s Indiana Pacers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, and by the University of Houston’s football program. It controls entry for employees and players, said Anthony Antolino, the company’s chief marketing officer.
All major U.S. leagues, including baseball, football, basketball and hockey, have stepped up security checks in recent years, according to team and league policies.
"We have found it to be a real challenge," said Jason Pearl, senior vice president of business development for the San Francisco Giants baseball team. "We have only so many entrances to the ball park."
The Giants in 2014 became the first team to use Clear to ease lines. More recently, the team has begun using Clear’s data to track its customers.
“When are people showing up?” Pearl said. "What games are in the most demand? Who is using it?"
Expanding Clear so its data can be used in marketing is a growth strategy, said chairman and chief executive officer Caryn Seidman-Becker. The company has 750,000 members and offers such services as paperless biometric boarding passes for flights and access to airport frequent-flier lounges, Seidman-Becker said. She declined to provide usage numbers for the sports program, or to describe how it checks members’ backgrounds.
For the Heat, it’s just a niche market for now.
At its Nov. 26 game against the Memphis Grizzlies, the few dozen people who used one of two Clear lanes at AmericanAirlines Arena represented a fraction of the 19,600 in attendance. And not all those stuck in the security line seemed to mind. One guy, curiously enough, even seemed to enjoy it.
"Lines are fine," said Spencer Jolly, 31, a probation officer visiting from Georgia. "I get to see people I never see, and get ready for the experience."