The Qatar World Cup Ushers in a New Era of Digital Authoritarianism in Sports

The Qatar World Cup Ushers in a New Era of Digital Authoritarianism in Sports

The Qatar World Cup Ushers in a New Era of Digital Authoritarianism in Sports

With drones, video cameras, facial recognition software, and undercover police, the tournament may be the most-surveilled sporting event ever.

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Rasmus Tantholdt, a reporter for Danish network TV2, was attending Iran’s final group game against the United States last week when he was detained for filming Iranian fans allegedly being attacked by supporters of the country’s regime.

Tantholdt, who recorded the incident on his phone at the Al Thumama Stadium in Doha, tweeted on Tuesday that he had been “detained by Qatari Police” for filming the alleged attack. He followed up with a second tweet shortly thereafter saying he was released after being asked to “delete my pictures which I refused.”

One of the videos shared by Tantholdt showed two Iranian football fans dressed in T-shirts emblazoned with “Women, Life, Freedom”—a slogan of solidarity with the mass protests in Iran. The two fans appeared distressed in the video, urging the reporter to offer them safe passage through the venue.

“Even the police is with them,” one of the fans told Tantholdt in the video posted to Twitter. “We need to get out of here.”

A second journalist, freelancer Samindra Kunti, also tweeted after the Iran-USA match that he was “detained for 15 minutes by security for taking the ‘wrong’ photo.” He later told The Guardian that security had informed him that more than “500 cameras were watching him.”

While Qatar’s treatment of journalists is no surprise given the authoritarian state’s well-documented contempt for a free press and other human rights, the security official’s statement about hundreds of cameras watching a journalist’s every movement was particularly unsettling in light of Qatar’s dystopian surveillance technology.

More than 15,000 cameras are currently being deployed to monitor soccer fans across eight stadiums throughout the duration of the 2022 World Cup. Fans are also being surveilled around Doha’s streets by drones and by CCTV cameras armed with facial recognition technology. The cameras are operated remotely from a central command centre that allows security to zoom in and track targets.

The virtual network, which has eyes on fans from the moment of their arrival to Qatar until their departure, is being touted by organizers as the future of sports surveillance.

“What you see here is a new standard, a new trend in venue operations, this is our contribution from Qatar to the world of sport,” Niyas Abdulrahiman, the organizers’ chief technology officer informed AFP in August.

Qatar’s use of biometric mass surveillance to monitor soccer fans is not without precedent. Several stadiums across Europe have utilized surveillance tactics in recent years, with varying degrees of success. Notable clubs such as Atlético Madrid, Valencia, AFC Ajax, Manchester City, have all experimented with facial recognition technology and other forms of biometric identification, including fingerprints and palm veins.

Biometric identification is a threat to human rights and civil liberties when it is used as a tool for mass surveillance. It often disproportionately affects minority groups such as women, people of color, and people who identify as members of the LGBTQ+ community.

In 2017, facial recognition technology wrongly identified more than 2,200 people as possible criminals at the 2017 Champions League final in Cardiff, UK—a 92 percent failure rate. The controversial software was deemed “unlawful” in 2020 but was redeployed earlier this year despite the ruling.

Last year, France’s data privacy watchdog CNIL warned the soccer club FC Metz against its unlawful use of facial recognition technology as a counter-terrorism tool after the club was caught experimenting with the technology to ban certain people from entering the stadium.

In April 2021, the European Commission submitted a proposal for a landmark AI Act that would serve as the EU regulatory framework on artificial intelligence. While the proposal will be discussed later this month, several members of the European Parliament have already called for an outright ban on “remote biometric identification” (RBI) in publicly accessible spaces.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration began using a mobile app in 2021 that relies on facial recognition, geolocation, and cloud technology to process asylum seekers on the US-Mexico border. The following year, the White House released a set of guidelines for private companies to take additional steps to protect consumer data and privacy. However, the guidelines are not binding; unlike in the EU, in the US there are no federal laws specifically regulating AI or biometric surveillance technology.

While biometric technology may in future face stringent regulations across Europe and other democratic states, it is unlikely to meet similar restrictions in autocratic states like Qatar, where advanced surveillance is already being used to quell dissent, political activism, and other forms of free expression.

The Gulf state requires everyone traveling to the country during the quadrennial tournament to download two official applications—the official World Cup app called Hayya and a Covid-19 tracking app called Ehteraz that pose major privacy and security risks.

“One of the apps collects data on whether and with which number a telephone call is made,” Germany’s data protection commissioner said in a statement. “The other app actively prevents the device on which it is installed from going into sleep mode. It is also obvious that the data used by the apps not only remain locally on the device, but are also transmitted to a central server.”

Beyond its advanced surveillance systems, Qatar is also employing on-the-ground security forces—many of whom appear to be acting undercover—to further monitor its visitors,

For example, hours prior to being detained at the USA vs. Iran match last Tuesday, Tantholdt was in the middle of an interview with a Danish-Iranian football fan when an unknown security official in a gray suit appeared in the background to listen in on the conversation. He disappeared shortly thereafter.

Several other journalists have faced intimidation and censorship in Qatar over the past few weeks. A journalist for Dutch news website NU.nl was confronted by police for taking pictures of migrant workers seated outside the stadium and was forced to delete the shots. Daily Mail reporter Kathryn Batte had her phone snatched from her outside the Al Janoub stadium when she attempted to film Ghana fans forcing their way into the stadium ahead of the group stage match against Uruguay last week. Batte later wrote that she was threatened with arrest and forced by security officials to delete the footage.

Given the pattern of censorship prevalent throughout the 2022 World Cup, it is evidently clear that Qatar’s state-of-the art surveillance technology is less about its determination to uphold safety standards than it is about stamping out protests and intimidating potential dissidents.

Welcome to the age of digital authoritarianism in sports.

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