by Jonathan T. Howe Esq. | March 01, 2014

Between disclosures about the snooping by the NSA and the hacking of credit card numbers at several hotels' F&B outlets, travelers' sensitive information continues to be under attack.

Our continuing right of privacy is almost always upheld by the courts. Nonetheless, this sometimes is trumped by governmental interest, which would include court subpoenas. And a recent court decision redefined the ownership of the information found in hotel records.

Case in point
The United States Circuit Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, which governs the West Coast, recently weighed in on hotel guest records, answering the question: "Is there an expectation of privacy for hotel guest records?" The decision was no, there can be no expectation of privacy on the part of the guest. But, the court went on to state that hotels have an interest in keeping their records private.

At issue was a Los Angeles ordinance requiring hotels to hand over guest information to police officers, upon request, without a warrant. This would include the name, address, number of people in the party, and other information such as check-in and checkout times, room numbers and method of payment.

It was a split decision, where the court held that the Los Angeles ordinance was unconstitutional and the police would need a warrant to obtain such information. The court said, "The business records…are the hotel's private property, and the hotel therefore has both a possessory and ownership interest in the records." As a result of those "property-based interests," the hotel has a right to prevent the disclosure of that information without a proper warrant.

However, the court also went on to say, "To be sure, the guests lack any privacy interest of their own in the hotel's records. But that is because the records belong to the hotel, not the guest, and the records contain information that guests have voluntarily disclosed to the hotel."

Traveler Beware
What does this all boil down to? It means a guest has no reasonable expectation that the fact that he or she is on property is private, although, by law, credit card details cannot be disclosed.

Still, federal law and voluntary compliance programs affirm the need to protect guest information, and travelers should expect reasonable care to be taken with that data by the meeting host and hotel.

A Silver Lining

This ruling should help show that meeting professionals are within their rights to request the identity of people in the hotel in order to cross-match their attendee lists with the hotel's guest list for purposes of verifying attrition claims and the like. Even if some attendees have gone around the block, planners should be able to count them as part of the group.

Jonathan T. Howe, Esq., is a senior partner of the Chicago, St. Louis and Washington, D.C., law firm of Howe & Hutton Ltd., specializing in meetings and hospitality law. Email questions to him at