What the Facebook Fallout Means for Events

Author: David McMillin       

When you visit the homepage of the world’s largest social-media platform, its promise is prominently displayed: “It’s free,” Facebook says, “and always will be.”

On the surface, the claim seems true. No one uploads their credit-card info to create a Facebook account. However, the fallout from Facebook’s connection to political-consulting firm Cambridge Analytica has reminded social-media users that their private data is the real price tag. The firm — which worked on Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign — managed to collect data from approximately 270,000 Facebook users who downloaded an app to take a personality quiz. The 270,000 number comes from Facebook’s Paul Grewal, Facebook’s vice president and deputy general counsel; a report from The New York Times and The Observer of London estimates that the firm harvested data from more than 50 million Facebook users without their knowledge or permission.

The mistake is proving to be quite costly for Facebook. The company lost nearly $35 billion in market value in less than a week, and #deleteFacebook became a rallying cry on Twitter. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg — who just months ago was rumored to be making presidential run in 2020 — begged for forgiveness from the public. In an interview with WIRED Editor-in-Chief Nicholas Thompson, Zuckerberg shared a valuable lesson: “I think the feedback that we’ve gotten from our community and from the world is that privacy and having the data locked down is more important to people than maybe making it easier to bring more data and have different kinds of experiences.”

Connecting the Dots to Attendee Data

Zuckerberg’s realization that privacy actually matters should echo across every corner of the Internet, including the events industry. Facebook has access to mountains of data that earns them massive amounts of money from advertisers (nearly $40 billion last year). Mishandling that data has landed them in serious trouble. However, one could argue that conferences, trade shows, and events have the potential to collect even more valuable information. Sure, Facebook knows where you live, what product posts you like, and when you engage in a political spat with your uncle, but events collect information on an attendee’s income level, education background, favorite happy hour drink, and dietary restrictions — not to mention credit-card info. All of that data comes before they even arrive. Once they’re on site, location-based services can track when they attend education sessions, when they leave, how long they stay at the hotel bar, and much more.

Now, consider all the parties involved in an event that may have access to some of that data: exhibitors, sponsors, venue owners, and technology partners. Do all those organizations subscribe to the same values as the host organization? This is where Facebook ran into the real trouble. They believed that — or they were too lazy to investigate whether — the developers behind apps designed for Facebook were taking data ethics seriously. “We got those [legal] certifications [that indicated they would adhere to the company’s privacy restrictions], and Cambridge Analytica had actually told us that they actually hadn’t received raw Facebook data at all,” Zuckerberg told WIRED. “It was some kind of derivative data, but they had deleted it and weren’t [making] any use of it.”

Now, it’s clear that they were making use of it, and Facebook’s failure to determine the truth underscores the importance of an organization’s duty to make sure that each of its partners are on the same page with how data can and cannot be used. Should sponsors know how attendees moved throughout a convention center? Should exhibitors be able to access their social-media accounts? How does the organization inform attendees about data-collection processes during registration?

Biometrics Will Bring Bigger Questions

In the future, the questions about data will be more serious. Biometric-tracking initiatives are already reshaping airports, and similar technologies will take over the on-site experience, too, to track when attendees are excited and when they’re bored. “Like all technology, [biometric technology] is amazingly creepy and amazingly awesome,” Thompson said in an interview at PCMA’s Convening Leaders.

For example, Thompson referenced hotels that are experimenting with FitBit-style wristbands that track blood and sensor data. “Technology is going to change us in ways that we can’t possibly understand,” Thompson said. “And it’s going to change much faster than we think. For event technology, what we’ll be able to do in 10 years is hard to conceptualize. For now, think about the ethics and the philosophy. We need to start thinking about the moral issues.”

Interested in more insights from Thompson on how technology is changing us? Read his Q&A with Convene here

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