Skift Take

A facial recognition startup has developed a new way to protect attendee data, but many people are still wary of the technology. It's hard to blame them, considering that data breaches within the travel industry seem to be happening left and right.

One of the most important goals for event planners is creating a truly personalized experience for the attendee. This often means tracking attendee engagement, a task that is notoriously hard to do.

Facial recognition and facial analysis can help, and more and more companies are starting to use it. This is not just true in the events space, but in other industries as well, including airlines and hotels. It has gone from a new, somewhat dystopian technology, to something that is now on planners’ radar. The technology can automatically check attendees in, and give them personalized updates about the event itself.

Despite the potential information the tech can provide, however, many planners still have valid privacy concerns about it, and are reluctant to use it. As facial recognition becomes more common, privacy concerns are rising.

“Facial recognition will become the norm as we travel to events, helping cut down the long lines we’ve all stood in traveling to and during an event,” predicted Jason Askew, product marketing manager for onsite solutions at Cvent, in a recent EventMB report.

He added that data protection needed to be established first, however: “There are some privacy issues that are important to navigate before we get there. Security improvements will be stronger but more passive.”

Companies like Zenus, which provides facial recognition technology for events, are finding ways to ensure this privacy. The startup launched its facial recognition check-in service in 2017, and has spent the past two years working on a way to protect attendee data. Now, the startup, which currently has seven people, feels confident in its ability to ensure security.

“We are very, very conscious of this concern,” said Zenus CEO Panos Moutafis.  “We sacrificed a lot of revenue until we found a way to get this space right.”

Data separation is key when it comes to privacy, according to Moutafis. During check-in, the company will see the person’s picture and registration number, but not their name, email address, or any other identifying information, something unusual for facial recognition companies.

“When people check in, they see their name, and when people submit their photo they see their name. But we don’t actually access it,” said Moutafis. “I can’t tell you how, because that’s proprietary, but we have found a way of offering a fully personalized experience to the individual where we never accesses the data at all. Which is the good part. What do we get? It’s the picture, plus the ticket number.”

Beyond just checking people in, the technology also transforms the event experience into something more personal. Zenus will place further monitors inside and outside the conference hall, which will register individual attendees. Those attendees will then get personalized messages telling them about upcoming panels, and exhibitors will get information about who is visiting them next.

The company also installs cameras with facial analysis software, gathering information on how attendees actually feel about an event. The cameras do not actually record what is going on, however, but process it live, meaning no personal data is stored. The only thing the company sees is the actual analytics, such as what percentage of people were engaged at a certain panel, or how many attendees were in this or that booth at a particular moment.

Major Privacy Hurdles Remain

People are slowly becoming more comfortable with the technology, according to Moutafis. But even with advances in data security measures, privacy is such a huge concern for people that progress is slow. On top of this, the industry still lags when it comes to gathering data in general. Even using heatmapping technology or Wi-Fi to track attendees is relatively uncommon within the events world.

As more people are starting to use facial recognition, more restrictions have been put on it, as well. Some cities are even beginning to ban the use of it. In May, San Francisco banned the use of facial recognition by local government agencies, and a month later Somerville, a town in Massachusetts, implemented a similar ban. These are not outliers: Many areas have considered bans on the technology as well, including all of California.

More than just a privacy concern, many say it contributes to racial profiling and gender discrimination, especially when used by law enforcement. Even some of the best facial recognition technologies have difficulty correctly identifying women and people of color.

While Zenus does not have an answer to the gender and racial bias often embedded within the technology, it is confident in its ability to ensure data security. Moutafis said awareness of how the technology actually works is the best way to get more planners and attendees on board.

Because of this, the company will send emails to all attendees prior to the event, informing them of how their data is protected, and giving them the option to opt in. According to Moutafis, Zenus has seen the number of opt-ins rise since it initially released its facial recognition technology two years ago, although it still varies.

“Participation has grown a lot since our first deployments,” he said, explaining that nowadays the company often works events where over 60 percent of attendees opt-in, and never less than one-third.

“People are much more willing to opt in than people think,” said Moutafis. “If you do these things right, they are very much willing to do it, as long as you explain to them how it works.”


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Tags: event tech, facial recognition, meetings, meetingsiq

Photo credit: An event attendee smiles for the facial recognition camera as she checks in. Zenus

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