Conference Surveillance

In addition to Spanish tapas and cocktails served at the ESOF conference mixer Monday night in Barcelona, I was also served something less appetizing: the news that for the past five days, unbeknown to me, a radio frequency infrared device (RFID) hidden in my name tag had been reporting my conference attendance habits to organizers. Ditto for the more than 3,500 other participants. A radio reporter from Southern Germany showed me the RFID hidden in between the front and back sides of my name tag; he had also just discovered the strip in his own badge. So that was the explanation for the twin pillars at the doorway of every session room and the main building’s entrance: They were the RFID readers. Despite my otherwise enjoyable time at the conference, I suddenly felt a bit irked. An ESOF delegate passes through RFID readers at the congress entrance Although I’m reluctantly getting used to having my buying habits monitored through frequent-flyer programs and supermarket savings cards, at least I am knowingly giving up my private information in exchange for cheap orange juice. But unlike the voice that announces when my telephone conversation with technical support will be recorded “for quality assurance,” nobody told me my conference activity would be monitored. I wasn’t the only one taken unaware; many other party goers--although not all--were likewise put out. But I also felt curious about all this surveillance. So this morning, I went to the conference office headquarters and asked to see the information they had acquired about me. Within a minute or two, a technical support staff member for the company that managed the conference opened up a spreadsheet that contained a potpourri of my personal information: my name, the fact that I am a member of the press, my affiliation (C&EN), my hometown, as well as the precise time--down to the second--that I entered and left every single session I attended. Even a short break to use the WC in the middle of a talk on regulating functional food had been time-stamped. Perhaps because I looked entirely flabbergasted, the guy who showed me the spreadsheet cheerfully noted that the company was not allowed, by Spanish law, to sell my data. He also told me that the technology to track conference attendees has been around for several years. Furthermore, an increasing number of conferences track delegate data: About 10% of the company’s clients opt to pay the extra money to monitor participants. And it’s a pretty pricey endeavor: Each RFID tag costs $1.00, and the RFID readers are each approximately €500 to rent per day. He told me ESOF had 14 such readers operating over five days. So the cost of tracking ESOF delegates would be approximately €35,000 for the RFID readers plus the approximately $3,500 USD for RFID tags placed in our name badges. What ESOF plans to do with the data, I don’t know. (I am still waiting to hear back from them. They didn’t get back to me today, so I’ll post their response when I get it.) But I do know what I plan to do at the next conference I attend. Before I dig into the book of abstracts, I’m peeling that RFID tag off my conference badge.

Author: Sarah Everts

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3 Comments

  1. Wow. I’ll definitely be taking a closer look at my ID badges for future conferences.

  2. ESOF spokesperson Michael Kessler emailed me to say that ESOF is not going to use any private information obtained at the congress using the tracking software. ESOF is only going “to count the global number of people [that] attended each session,” Kessler wrote. He also notes that the tracking was an in-kind contribution to ESOF from “the ESOF technical partner,” whose name he did not disclose. The ESOF technical partner chose the tracking system, noted Kessler. Said technical partner, “wanted to provide ESOF with the latest technology of accreditation,” he added.

  3. +100. Respect. 😉