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photo of a security guard wanding a fan

In this Aug. 17, 2013, file photo, a security guard wands a Cincinnati Bengals fan outside Paul Brown Stadium.

Tom Uhlman

Fan Privacy Is In The Spotlight As Stadiums Tackle Virus Prevention

The metal detectors every sports fan has become accustomed to at the gate might soon be accompanied by thermal body scanners as part of the gargantuan task of preventing the spread of the new coronavirus and other airborne diseases.

And that might be just one thing the public will need to be comfortable with in order to bring games back for in-person viewing.

Tickets have widely transitioned from paper souvenirs to smartphone screens, but how about using your face as your proof of purchase Nascent forms of crowd monitoring — like laser-driven density detection and camera-based calculations of line length — will likely grow faster in a post-pandemic era of live sports that must highlight hygiene.

“The pandemic really ups the need for greater assurance of stadium safety,” said Bob Boland, an athletics official who teaches at Penn State and has more than two decades of experience in sports and law as an instructor, consultant and agent. “Vaccine treatments, containment, they all could be game-changers, but people will need to be comfortable with mass body temperature screening and other technology that could be in play.”

Not unlike the aftermath from the 2001 terrorist attacks, when long waits to pass through magnetometers and have a security guard wave a wand over pants pockets became the norm.

“After 9/11 we overdid it, meaning we were so intent on making every building be safe and everyone safe that we made it extremely inconvenient to go to games and events. But we said that it would get better over time, and it did,” said Marc Ganis, cofounder of the Chicago-based consulting firm SportsCorp. “Now how do you do that?”

Technology will be a vital piece of the puzzle. It will also further test a fan’s willingness to potentially sacrifice a little more privacy in exchange for the opportunity to sit courtside or behind the plate again.

“Can I say both?” said Jim Mueller, a Milwaukee Bucks season ticket holder who also buys partial packages to Milwaukee Brewers and Green Bay Packers games. “I understand it from the Bucks’ perspective and the NBA perspective, but as an American I don’t want to be traced.”

Dave Karls has Bucks season tickets too, eager enough for his next visit to Fiserv Forum that having his location trackable in the arena would not interfere with the enjoyment.

“I’d much rather have that than not be able to attend the game at all,” Karls said.

Any concerns depend on an individual’s definition of surveillance, a word that carries a nefarious connotation in some corners. In some countries, the effort this year to stem the outbreak of COVID-19 with contact tracing has included citizen consent to location registration.

Activity at a sporting event in the U.S. would likely only be collected in aggregate, like an elevated skin temperature flagged during a walk through a thermal scanner. That’s not a piece of data tied to someone’s actual identity that could run afoul of federal privacy laws. Perhaps QR codes will be used for patrons to self-report current health conditions.

Carrying a smartphone and using it to shop already opens a user to some form of location tracking and direct marketing. Team-sponsored apps allowing fans to order burgers and beers directly to their seats and receive push notifications for merchandise already provide a framework for what could be next.

“I think the stadiums could probably say, ‘Hey, we’ve got 50 people in the bathroom right now,’ in the aggregate because you already downloaded that app,” said Nerissa Coyle McGinn, a Chicago attorney with a practice in advertising, technology and privacy who has worked with sports teams including the Chicago Bulls, Detroit Red Wings and New York Giants. “You’ve agreed to their privacy policy, and sharing aggregate information isn’t considered sharing personal information.”

The algorithms caused a bit of controversy at Alabama, where football coach Nick Saban’s frustration with students leaving blowout games early and a nationwide attendance decline prompted establishment of the “Tide Loyalty Points” program that rewarded fans for their fourth quarter presence with prizes and priority purchasing for in-demand events. Bluetooth technology is used in that case for tracking; it’s only functional inside Bryant-Denny Stadium.

“The more information you can give to somebody, the more likely they’re willing to consent to the question of this type of data,” said Nan Sato, a Philadelphia attorney with a focus on the intersection of technology and sports. “Who’s getting the data? How is it being stored and used, how long is the data going to be retained, and how the privacy of the fans is going to be protected?”

Screening technology that scans a user’s eyes, face or fingerprint has multiplied in recent years, particularly in airports to speed up security lines. Two years ago, Major League Baseball struck a deal with a biometric identification system, Clear, to accelerate ballpark entry by body part — fingerprints, for now, but perhaps one day a fan’s face will serve as his or her ticket.

“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. It’s more a matter of transparency on our clients’ front: ’Hey, we’re not going to sell this data to a third party. It’s maintained in an encrypted way,” said Shaun Moore, a former SMU football player and the co-founder of Trueface, a software startup with customers in a variety of sectors including sports. “We never see any of the data. We don’t know who’s in the database. So that’s one way we keep privacy in mind when developing these tools. There needs to be transparency in how the data flows and who has access to it, how long it stays in the system. Is it 30 days? Is it two days? Where is it being used?”

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