by Michael C. Lowe and Michael J. Shapiro | October 01, 2013
Where does tracking attendee behavior at trade shows cross the line and become an invasion of privacy? That's a question groups like the American Chemical Society have long considered, notes Alan Hutchins, the organization's director of meetings and operations. "The ACS Meetings & Exposition committees said no to badge scanners, because our attendees would prefer they not be tracked," he says. "Chemists are very private people." Instead of gathering hard data about which sessions are more popular than others, "the ACS continues to do manual estimates of attendees," according to Hutchins. "Our volunteers make an estimate of how many people are in the room and use those numbers to plan for next year."

While the extent of its resistance might be unusual, the ACS certainly is not alone with respect to concern about attendee privacy -- especially in light of new technologies that allow planners to track people as they move around a conference or trade show floor (see related article, "Tracking Your Trade Show."). For planners, that ability and the data it generates can be of great value when selling exhibit space or sponsorships, improving future programming or laying out a show floor. Some attendees, however, might see it as Big Brother.

The truth is, much of this electronic scrutiny isn't concerned with collecting information on individuals (see sidebar, "Tracking Technologies," left), and when it does focus on specific behaviors, the resulting data isn't used to create personal dossiers. "The information is collected to understand your membership or attendees a little bit better," explains Jason Paganessi, vice president of business innovation for the Chicago-based Professional Convention Management Association. "If the information is shared, it is shared in aggregate. You're looking at general figures or percentages; you're not giving out personal identifiable information." Even when attendees are scanned or tracked to gauge session attendance, adds Paganessi, show organizers aren't examining that data on an attendee level. "You can't possibly analyze that much data on an individual basis and be able to make any type of decision from that; it has to be based on an aggregate."

But as technology moves forward and the thirst for data grows, where is the line drawn?

Candid cameras, candid disclosure
Terrence Canela, general counsel with the American Institute of Architects, notes that laws relating to personal privacy in public spaces that were hashed out decades ago are not clearly defined, especially when it comes to today's high-tech capabilities. "Twenty years from now it probably will be standard to track all of this data," he says. "But because a lot of the technology is so new, you need to tread carefully." His first bit of advice is to always seek local legal counsel, as privacy laws can vary from state to state.

By definition, privacy laws hinge on "whether there's an intrusion into an area that a reasonable person would think is private," says Canela. "The key word there is reasonable, which is really vague."

When it comes to devices like electronically enhanced turnstiles and floor mats, which can track how many people enter a venue and where they go once there, Canela finds little cause for legal concern because attendee identities are not captured.

Even video surveillance methods of tracking attendee behavior should be OK, "as long as the attendees remain unidentifiable," says Stuart Ingis, a leading attorney on privacy and a partner at Washington, D.C.-based Venable LLP.  

Planners should include information in registration forms noting what kind of data is being collected, via what methods, how it will be used and how it will be stored. Being transparent means running the risk of raising concerns from those under scrutiny, so planners need to weigh the benefits of data capture before investing in it, notes Ingis.

Paul McDonnough, vice president, conferences and events, for the Direct Marketing Association, uses badge scanners during his annual conference (set for this Oct. 12-17 in Chicago) to track session popularity. "We tell our attendees exactly what we're doing and that we're doing it so we can continually evolve our content to match their needs," he says. "We're totally transparent about it, and we also give them an option to not participate. If they don't want their badge scanned, we don't make them."