MLB Teams Explore Using Cameras to Detect Maskless Fans at Games

The baseball season has started with eerily empty stadiums, but some teams are exploring high-tech ways to verify that people in the stands are taking health precautions, a possible step toward bringing fans back.

Several Major League Baseball teams have held talks with a California startup called Airspace Systems Inc. that develops technology to detect whether people are wearing face masks, the league and the company said. The discussions focus on implementing the systems into cameras around the stadium to identify people without face coverings, with masks dangling from their chins or otherwise worn improperly.

Representatives for Airspace and MLB declined to name the teams in talks to use the technology. They also declined to comment on whether the tools would be reserved for fans or whether they would be deployed sooner for screening players or staff.

The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted sports around the world, and the impact on Major League Baseball was especially sharp. After protracted negotiations, the season finally restarted last month. Since then, players and coaches have tested positive for the virus, games have been canceled, and ballparks have been shut down.

In place of fans, teams are charging to install cutouts of them in stands. It appears unlikely MLB fans would return until there’s a vaccine, but South Korean baseball offers a potential model for a return. Teams in the Korean Baseball Organization are allowing stadiums to host fans at about 10% capacity, according to ESPN.

A mask requirement at ballparks would likely stoke controversy. Such mandates at stores and on airplanes have resulted in violent confrontations between customers and workers.

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, said Ifeoma Ajunwa, an associate professor at Cornell University who has studied the intersection of law and surveillance.

“We need to think about this as a larger societal issue,” she said. “Are we ushering in an era of constant surveillance for citizens, and when will that era end? We do need to have an endpoint if we are going to introduce these technologies for the control of disease.”

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.

The software analyzes video from security cameras to determine whether certain areas might be “hot zones” for mask misuse. It’s then up to the customer to figure out how to respond, said Banga, Airspace’s chief executive officer. Customers are evaluating various nonthreatening ways of handling those interactions, such as sending someone dressed in a nurse’s outfit to hand out a free mask, Banga said.

In an early experiment, the system was able to identify proper mask use with more than 80% accuracy, Banga said. Airspace said it has also held conversations with airports about testing the technology but declined to say which ones.

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.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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