Grilling Disney Over the Use of RFID

A U.S. Congressman is asking a lot of questions about how the company plans to deploy radio frequency identification at its theme parks. My question is, why?
Published: January 25, 2013

On Jan. 7, 2013, The New York Times published an article about The Walt Disney Co. introducing wristbands with an embedded radio frequency identification transponder to enable visitors to enter its parks, purchase goods, and receive alerts when its their turn to ride Space Mountain or other attractions (see At Disney Parks, a Bracelet Meant to Build Loyalty [and Sales]). “Disney in the coming months plans to begin introducing a vacation management system called MyMagic+ that will drastically change the way Disney World visitors—some 30 million people a year—do just about everything,” the article states.

This article apparently raised the concerns of Congressman Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts. Markey put out a press release saying he had “raised questions today about the privacy implications for children visiting Disney theme parks resulting from the company’s plan to offer a new bracelet at its parks that will serve as a payment source, room key, and gateway to other services during visits to some Disney parks.”

Markey sent a letter to Disney’s chairman and CEO, Robert Iger, asking some pretty detailed questions about how the company will track and collect information about guests and target them with advertisements, especially the children and teenagers who frequent the parks. You can view the letter on Markey’s Web site.

The folks at Disney have been very concerned about doing the right thing by their guests. I know this because the company’s management has asked me questions privately from time to time over the past year, all of which have been focused on ways to ensure that RFID could in no way damage Disney’s relationship with its guests.

Indeed, the Times article notes, “Guests will not be forced to use the MagicBand system, and people who do try it will decide how much information to share. An online options menu, for instance, will offer various controls: Do you want park employees to know your name? Do you want Disney to send you special offers when you get home? What about during your stay?”

The article goes on to explain, “What happens if your MagicBand is lost or stolen? Park employees will be trained to deactivate them or guests can use the My Disney Experience app, a Disney spokeswoman said. As a safety precaution, Disney will also require guests to enter a PIN when using the wristbands to make purchases of $50 or more. ‘The bands themselves will contain no personal identifiable information,’ Mr. Staggs said.” (Thomas O. Staggs is the chairman of Disney Parks and Resorts.)

It seems to me that Markey assumes Disney is guilty of something, and that he is demanding the company prove its innocence. And that doesn’t seem right. If Disney infringes on its customers’ privacy, then that should be exposed and dealt with.

Maybe Markey should have done his homework prior to dashing off the letter to Disney, which is not the first U.S. resort to introduce RFID wristbands. As the Times article notes, in fact, “Great Wolf Resorts, an operator of 11 water parks in North America, has been using them [wristbands equipped with RFID] since 2006.” I have never heard of any consumer complaints related to RFID lodged against the resort—and if it had received complaints, I doubt it would be expanding its RFID applications. In 2009, Great Wolf introduced an RFID-based interactive game for children (see Great Wolf Lodge Combines Storytelling With RFID), and in 2011, the resort added an RFID-enabled social-media application that lets guests link the RFID technology in their water park wristbands with their Facebook accounts, to automatically share photographs.

I am all for protecting consumer privacy. What I’m not in favor of is the government assuming all companies are evil by nature and prone to nefarious uses of new technologies, or that the technologies themselves are inherently bad for consumers.

Mark Roberti is the founder and editor of RFID Journal. If you would like to comment on this article, click on the link below. To read more of Mark’s opinions, visit the RFID Journal Blog, the Editor’s Note archive or RFID Connect.