Future Tense

The 2020 Olympics Will Use Facial Recognition on Every Athlete

The Olympic rings.
Tokyo is planning to use cutting edge technology to address security concerns at the 2020 Olympics.
Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images

The 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo will deploy a facial recognition system to identify more than 300,000 athletes, staff, volunteers, and journalists at the games. It’s the first time that facial recognition technology will be used for security at the Olympics.

The planned system is supposed to address several unique security considerations for the upcoming games. Unlike many previous Olympics, Tokyo will not have a centralized Olympic Park in which athletes and others can travel freely between the main facilities—instead, the 2020 Games will be spread out across the Tokyo metropolitan area. Given that setup, people will need to authenticate their identities at more than 40 venues across the city, which could potentially lead to longer wait times to enter the facilities.

Additionally, the games are scheduled for Japan’s hottest and most humid months, and the current record summer heat wave in the country is inspiring worries that the 2020 Games may be the hottest in more than a century. The extreme heat could cause health problems if people are forced to wait outside for long periods of time.

The Olympic organizers and NEC, the Japanese IT and networking company behind the facial recognition technology, hope that the system will resolve these potential problems by streamlining the security process, reducing wait times, and preventing people from using stolen or forged identification cards.

NEC claims to have the world’s leading facial recognition technology, according to tests from the United States’ National Institute of Standards and Technology. Its facial recognition program uses an A.I. system called NeoFace, which is part of a broader line of biometric authentication technology. NeoFace works by analyzing faces in live-streamed security footage and searching for matches in its database, and it has been used in the past to help identify and convict a criminal. NEC said that it tested the facial recognition technology during the 2016 Rio Olympics and that its biometric technology has already been implemented in various locations across 70 countries, including at airports.

The system planned for the 2020 Olympics will link accredited attendees’ photo data with their identification cards, which work by tapping the card to a reader for about one second. In order for the facial recognition system to work, more than 300,000 people will need to submit photographs to a database before the 2020 Olympics commence. The system will not be used on spectators, who will still need to use tickets and submit to luggage checks.

NEC Senior Vice President Masaaki Suganuma told Reuters that “99.7 percent of the time, the face is recognized by the system correctly.” Suganuma also said that the system’s accuracy is consistent across nationalities and for people of different sizes and heights.

On Tuesday, NEC demonstrated the technology in Tokyo, showing that people wouldn’t be able to enter venues with someone else’s identification card. A video posted by the Japan Times showed the system in action: The athletes approached the blue NEC machine—which features a card reader, a camera, and a video screen—and simultaneously touched their cards to the reader while looking into the camera. The system worked smoothly, allowing the line of eight people to proceed through the screening in approximately 20 seconds.

While the facial recognition technology is marketed as a boon to security and efficiency, there is the persistent concern among privacy advocates that the increased use of facial recognition technology could have serious implications for people’s privacy and civil liberties in the public sphere. As Slate reported during the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, global sporting events tend to pave the way for an expansion of a more permanent surveillance infrastructure in host countries that persists after the games conclude. The security apparatus is then often used to control and police local citizens. For example, in preparation for the 2010 World Cup in Cape Town, South Africa’s police minister wrote an op-ed proclaiming that the country’s security “investments are not only meant for the event but, will continue to assist the police in their crime-fighting initiatives long after the Soccer World Cup is over.” This commitment to high-tech security also comes with a massive price tag, and some critics say that for all the cost, advanced facial recognition tools will not keep people that much safer.

The use of facial recognition technology at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics will be closely monitored by both supporters and skeptics to see whether it will be effective or invasive, especially given the massive scale of its deployment. For all the potential benefits of this expanded technology, it is worthwhile to consider whether Tokyo will become another athletic testing ground that sets a precedent for more concerning applications of security technology.