Episode 3: On Biometric Data and Events

Episode 3: On Biometric Data and Events

As the collective events industry searches for guidance on how to safely restart events, in the absence of authority leadership and advice, we look to each other. Scientists, academics and health & safety consultants are faced with the challenge of providing answers to the many questions we ask. Journal articles, industry papers and respected magazines are issuing recommendations at record speed and every morning there are thousands of articles on COVID-19/SARS-COV2. Within these, we find indications on how we can improve risk assessment and what measures we can apply to our varied and unique industry. Even newspapers are suggesting easy to remember guidelines, such as ‘follow the four C’s‘.

One such trajectory is the use of biometric data capture to allow a person to attend an event. As someone who values privacy as a human right, I find it important that we consider the impact of such systems, both positive and negative, and view them within the bigger picture of our moral obligations. The ‘right to privacy’ encompasses personal identity and aspects of social and physical identity, including a person’s right to their image, biometric, genetic and electronic data (Beduschi, 2019). We are starting to see a shift in the attitude of private industry regarding the use of biometric technology, as giants like IBM and Amazon abandon facial recognition software as evidence of unethical use rise to the surface.

What happens after?

“When you kind of pull back the layers, people aren’t fearful of the facial recognition technology itself. They’re fearful of what happens to that data after”SHAUN MOORE

As quoted in this article on stadium technology and privacy “When you kind of pull back the layers, people aren’t fearful of the facial recognition technology itself. They’re fearful of what happens to that data after”. A football crowd and a rugby crowd have different values, as the values of festival attendees and conferences delegates. Understanding the values of your attendees is key in assessing the best measures to reduce the risk of transmission. For example, an audience attending a conference on data privacy may have strong values and would not feel comfortable taking part in any system that requires them to submit biometric information, especially if it goes to third parties.

Based on people’s experiences with authorities and data protection, some may have a relaxed attitude towards their privacy, unconcerned what happens to their data, but others won’t. Technology and data can be used to discriminate (Beduschi, 2019) and people will be concerned that their biometric data will be captured, stored and used by a private organisation just so they can attend an event. What happens to this data after the event? Will it be destroyed? Will it be accessed by a third party?

Logistic and behaviour impact

It is also important to consider the full process of implementing strategies such as contact tracing or temperature screening linked to ticketing data etc. as it will present logistical, personal and possibly political challenges further down the line. For example, a person buys a festival ticket and plans to drive with three friends. Then, two days before the festival, they test positive for the virus. All of a sudden, a group of four attendees becomes three without transport. Furthermore, if they were in close contact, there is a risk that those three will have contracted the virus, however it would be highly unlikely to show up on temperature screening, virus or antibody test, due to limited rates of accuracy (Pulia et al, 2020)

Does this mean all four now cannot attend? They will get their money back but what impact does this have on the festival budget? From a behavioural point of view, what happens if all those who were exposed still turned up to the festival to gain entry. Firstly, their symptoms may go unnoticed and secondly there is a risk of creating a ‘them and us’ situation at a time when it’s important to create ‘shared social identity’ (Drury et al, 2019).Consideration must be given to how the practicality of this will impact event operations; ingress, car parks, last-mile/zone ex, communications with volunteer stewards, security, or ticketing staff etc. The risk of confrontation and discrimination (I can enter v they cannot) may increase.

Going deeper into the personal experiences of these people; the idea of submitting contact details of friends, colleagues and family to the authorities or even private organisations is not a comfortable one. Dr Reicher spoke in this podcast how it’s not part of our social norms to tell on people, especially if we know it can negatively impact their lives. Furthermore, if you are two days away from attending a festival and find out someone you have been in contact with has the virus, it’s now up to you to quarantine. This could be difficult to comply with, especially if you are feeling well.

Do we even need it?

Just because the latest technology is available, doesn’t mean we need to use it. A tool only works when it chosen for the right task. A hammer wouldn’t be chosen to screw a bolt. We may jump to consider screening technologies but have we considered if we even need them? If our objective is to hold a successful event, where our crowd arrive and leave safely and in a positive demeanour, then our remit of responsibility for them lies within that scale of time. If we consider the limited accuracy levels of temperature screening (UK Gov, 2020), virus and antibody testing (Pulia et al, 2020) and ineffectiveness of current contact tracing systems (Mueller and Bradley, 2020) then we know that if we used these as access control strategies, we will still allow contagious carriers into our event and probably reject healthy people. The risk of transmission still exists, although somewhat reduced. Then we use contact tracing on top of this which only helps alert people to the fact they may have been exposed, only after the event is already over. Furthermore, there will be limited evidence to confirm the person contracted or transmitted it at the event (Ishola et al, 2011). These solutions don’t serve the event organiser if their plan is to reduce risk to attendees at the event, as much as we think.

Safe by design

It is our role to ensure the safety of staff and attendees as far as reasonably practicable. There are many practical solutions to reduce the risk of transmission at events that could be more effective in the perimeter of responsibility of the event organiser. Often the most effective solutions are the least costly and complicated. I go into this in episode two.

Harnessing the power of behavioural science in developing safe operating strategies, the key message is to listen to and include your audience. Communicating with your crowd in such a way that allows them to feel ‘we are all in this together’ will increase adherence to rules applied. Including them to ‘co-design’ your strategy will not only provide insight as to how to navigate this environment but means they are more likely to comply (Bonell et al, 2020). If biometric technology must be included as part of this strategy, it’s important that engineers implement privacy safeguards as matter of design. An example of this could be combining biometrics with blockchain technology to decentralise the storage of data (Beduschi, 2019).

Whether or not our audience deems privacy as a high value, it is still within our moral obligation to approach biometric data capture strategies with critical awareness. As technology advances and the legal system is still waking up, it’s up to us to define the moral boundary and make decisions based on it. As the quote above states, many are not fearful of the technology itself but fearful of how it’s used. We must treat our attendees’ personal and biometric data with the respect it deserves. We must continue to search for the win-win situation that benefits both our industry and our precious crowds, for, without them, we have no industry.


Beduschi, A. (2019) “Digital identity: Contemporary challenges for data protection, privacy and non-discrimination rights.” Big Data & Society, 6(2) p. 2053951719855091.

Bonell, C., Michie, S., Reicher, S., West, R., Bear, L., Yardley, L., Curtis, V., Amlôt, R. and Rubin, G. J. (2020) “Harnessing behavioural science in public health campaigns to maintain ‘ social distancing ’ in response to the COVID-19 pandemic: key principles.” (British Medical Journal), May.

Drury, J., Carter, H., Cocking, C., Ntontis, E., Guven, S. T. and Amlôt, R. (2019) “Facilitating Collective Psychosocial Resilience in the Public in Emergencies: Twelve Recommendations Based on the Social Identity Approach.” Frontiers in Public Health, 7 p. 141.

Ishola, D. A. and Phin, N. (2011) “Could influenza transmission be reduced by restricting mass gatherings? Towards an evidence-based policy framework.” Journal of Epidemiology and Global Health, 1(1) pp. 33–60.

Pulia, M. S., O’Brien, T. P., Hou, P. C., Schuman, A. and Sambursky, R. (2020) “Multi-tiered screening and diagnosis strategy for COVID-19: a model for sustainable testing capacity in response to pandemic.” Annals of Medicine, May, pp. 1–8.

Mueller, B. and Bradley, J. (2020) “England’s ‘World Beating’ System to Track the Virus Is Anything But.” New York Times. [Online] 17th June. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/17/world/europe/uk-contact-tracing-coronavirus.html.

UKGovernment (2020) Don’t rely on temperature screening products for detection of coronavirus (COVID-19), says MHRA. [Online] [Accessed on July 3rd, 2020] https://www.gov.uk/government/news/dont-rely-on-temperature-screening-products-for-detection-of-coronavirus-covid-19-says-mhra?

Weise, K. and Singer, N. (2020) “Amazon Pauses Police Use of Its Facial Recognition Software.” New York Times. [Online] 11th June. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/10/technology/amazon-facial-recognition-backlash.html?searchResultPosition=1.