Rick Robinson

Mar 27th 2023

Event Security Technology Goes Face to Face


Many large-scale public events are all about dealing with crowds of people, and that brings with it the logistics of event security. The larger the crowds, often the larger the security headaches. Fortunately, event planners can now call upon a powerful new security technology for dealing with crowds: facial recognition security.

What’s in a Face?

Human beings are pretty good at recognizing faces. We can immediately recognize people we haven’t seen for decades, and our ability to perceive the individuality of faces is a powerful metaphor for the individuality of people. But as with other pattern-recognition tasks, devising algorithms that allow computers to match this human capability has been challenging.

According to research from Utah State University, efforts to apply computer technology to human facial recognition began as early as the 1960s, when the RAND tablet was devised for users to manually record the relative coordinate positions of facial features. Faces, like fingerprints, are all slightly different. With sufficient measurement data and number-crunching capability, these differences can be teased out numerically.

Facial images can then be recognized as similar, including images with measured similarity so great that they can only be a match, like two images of the same face. By the early 1990s, researchers had also devised ways to recognize the presence of a face in an image — a key development. In 2001, facial recognition security was deployed for crime control at a public event: the 2001 Super Bowl.

Marketing and Moods

Softjourn reports that typical use cases for facial recognition technology in event management range from backstage access control for staff and other authorized users to general identification checks, finding missing persons, gathering data on attendance and other use cases for future event optimization. These use cases, like the ones for many other security technologies, run the gamut in terms of public perception.

On the one hand, authorized access control for staff areas does not impinge on the general public attending the event, since they have no expectation of access to those areas. At the same time, the public is highly understanding of missing-person situations and welcomes any intervention that reunites people with their parties. On the other hand, obtaining general identification information (which would be needed for the missing-person scenario, for example) is necessarily more intrusive to the public.

While collecting data for use in improving future events seems benign from the event planner’s perspective, this type of data collection may not sit well with attendees. The Utah State University study examined user perceptions of a range of scenarios involving facial recognition data. Their results showed discomfort regarding the use of facial recognition technology for marketing messages. In particular, in a scenario where they did not explain how the facial recognition data would be used, participants reported discomfort of being tracked with it in a public gathering.

As interest and awareness of facial recognition technology has grown, so has concern, with organizations such as The Public Voice calling for a moratorium on the public use of the technology. This backlash is tied to some real-world limitations of the technology. Facial recognition systems are “trained” on images, and the training images often reflect the mix of people you find around software labs. As the Utah study noted, for example, white male faces drew a much lower error rate than female faces of color did.

In another aspect of the technology, Converve notes that the capability of facial recognition technology to provide “mood detection” takes concerns about privacy to a new level: Even if it is reliable, is it appropriate? On a more immediate level, event planners must also be mindful of the E.U.’s General Data Protection Regulation, which incorporates stronger privacy protections than current U.S. legal frameworks.

Using Powerful Tools Wisely

Likewise, the Professional Convention Management Association takes note of some critical security questions that event planners should ask about facial recognition security: “Where is your face data stored? Who else can access it? What else will it be used for? How are these companies remaining GDPR compliant? With so many questions regarding privacy, it’s important for organizers to create opt-in opportunities that give guests a sense of control.”

For event planners, facial recognition can be a powerful addition to the security technology toolkit. They must be aware of the limitations, though, as well as the capabilities of this technology, while being acutely aware of the possible public reactions to new security technology. As such, it will be vital to clearly explain how and why it is being used.

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