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Someone to Watch Over You

RFID is being used to track people in a variety of ways. Some say this is the beginning of the surveillance society. Others see big benefits.
By Jim Morrison
Jun 01, 2005—Parents who flocked to the Steamboat Ski Resort in Colorado this winter discovered a new way to keep their children safe. Steamboat MountainWatch, a locating system that uses a combination of passive and active RFID, let them keep track of their kids whether the youngsters were on the slopes, in daycare or eating at one of the restaurants.

When a family checked in at the Ski and Snowboard School or the Kids' Vacation Center, each member received a waterproof bracelet with an RFID tag as part of the fee. Skiers who weren't enrolled in the programs were able to use the Steamboat MountainWatch system for $25 a week for a group of four. With a swipe of the bracelet at one of six LocationStation kiosks, guests could find each of their party's last known location, tracked usually just seconds before, on the mountain, thanks to 56 RFID readers covering a 3-square-mile area, about 65 percent of the resort's 3,000 acres. They were also able to type text messages that others in their group could read the next time they passed a kiosk.

"It's given parents peace of mind in terms of their children," says Andy Wirth, the resort's vice president for sales and marketing. "For Steamboat, our position with the family customer is absolutely the core branding element. This was a technological partnership to help fortify that position, and I can tell you it has significantly advanced our position as the number one family resort in the western United States."

Wirth is sold on the technology. Steamboat considered using a global positioning system to accomplish the same thing, but settled on RFID because it works both inside and outside. While Wirth won't provide cost figures for the partnership with the vendor, SafeTzone, he says the system will yield a significant return on the resort's investment over the long term. About 300 families a week used the system last ski season.

Steamboat MountainWatch is an example of the increasing and varied ways RFID is being used to track people. SafeTzone has installed locating systems at a handful of theme parks, including Wild Rivers in Irvine, Calif., and Wannado City in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Several hospitals are finding it can improve patient safety and care, and a few schools in the United States and Japan have employed it to make sure students don't go missing en route to and from school. (To learn how RFID is being used to track employees, prisoners and soldiers, see "RFID On the Job: From Prisons to the Battlefield" at the end of this article.)

The practice of using RFID to track people is not without its dissenters. Privacy advocates say it smacks of Big Brother. Some parents refuse to permit their children to carry tags, and organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) have called for a moratorium on tracking students until the government explores the privacy issues.

In Scotland and Spain, bar patrons have had an RFID chip embedded in their arm to facilitate ordering and paying for drinks. While the bar-goers say it's harmless fun, other people find it repulsive, and religious critics believe it's the "mark of the Beast" forecast in the Bible's Book of Revelations.
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