Facial recognition technology at events – next generation nightmare?

Event professionals aren’t often given the recognition they deserve – it’s a catch 22. If you do the job well the hours of behind-the-scenes planning, prep, sweat and tears are often taken for granted.


This is a profession that demands creativity and the ability to analyse and problem solve for almost any eventuality! When technology comes along that promises to solve your most troublesome pain points it’s no wonder it’s met with open arms.


And this time, we are talking about live facial recognition.


Revolutionary, innovative, exciting? Or, invasive, insecure and maybe even illegal? Here we dig into the reality of facial recognition and what it means for events professionals on the front line.

Event attendee smiling at camera

Why use facial recognition technologies?


Many of us are already used to using facial recognition in our lives, with most of the latest smartphones scrapping unlock codes for a scan of your profile. Similarly, many airports and border checks deploy the technology for safety and crime prevention; in the UK we are encouraged to use epassport gates powered by facial recognition over and above manned border controls.


Similarly, as this blog from EventsAir summarises, there are several reasons why the hospitality industry are excited about the potential of live facial recognition. Quicker check-in, enhanced safety, data and insights, personalisation and convenience to name a few. While still in its infancy there is already talk of how next-level biometrics technologies could be deployed within events. Imagine being able to analyse en-masse when people are hungry, dehydrated or tired and in need of a break?


The ability to analyse and tailor events based on detailed metrics is very exciting.


Here comes the but…


Live facial recognition and the law


The introduction of GDPR put a firm stake in the ground when it comes to such biometric analytics.


Following the deployment of live facial recognition by South Wales Police for the purpose of crime prevention and detection, Elizabeth Denham, UK Information Commissioner wrote an uncompromising blog. She explained that live facial recognition technology, no matter the purpose for which it is deployed, is subject to data protection legislation.


Under GDPR biometric data is classed as a ‘special category’ and so requires even greater protections. The legislation doesn’t preclude use of facial recognition technologies but is very clear about the permissions and parameters that apply.


From ‘explicit consent’ to ‘appropriate safeguards’ the GDPR lays down the conditions under which live facial recognition can be used legally. While it’s clear that data protection law applies to facial recognition, deciphering the legislation is a challenge in itself!


It’s worth noting too that GDPR doesn’t just apply to events taking place in the EU, but to any EU subject no matter where they are. Planning for an event with EU attendees in California or Brisbane still requires you to comply with GDPR. Whether using state of the art technologies such as live facial recognition or biometrics or simply processing personal data in more conventional ways, GDPR should now hold top billing in relation to event prep.

Don’t assume attendee attitudes to facial recognition


These technologies are the subject of much debate, with Amazon recently under pressure by activist shareholders concerned about the direction of its ‘Rekognition’ software. In China there are shocking reports of the state using facial recognition to track and target ethnic minorities.

A study by the Brookings Institute in September 2018  suggested that around half of Americans wanted law enforcement to be limited in their use of facial recognition technologies. 42% agreed that it invaded personal privacy rights. However, some studies suggest that people are more open to facial recognition technologies – especially where it concerned issues of safety and security.


It’s important to consider how any potential use of facial recognition at public events are justified to attendees – not just to gain individuals’ explicit consents but also to reassure and educate.


With our decades of experience in the events and hospitality industry we know the demands placed on event pros. Importantly, we understand how GDPR applies to the events industry and the additional challenges it places upon colleagues.


If you’re worried about data protection and compliance with GDPR, get in touch and let’s chat.