Perspective: The Markey/Iger fight isn't about Disney -- it's about the future of RFID tracking
Published: January 29, 2013 at 9:47 AM
In a few years, your cell phone is going to be a MagicBand.
Okay, a Lego iPhone might not have RFID technology. But in a few years, your real one might.
You see, a MagicBand contains a RFID (radio frequency identification) tag, and within the next few years, pretty much every techie expects cell phone manufacturers to begin installing RFID tags in cell phones in the United States. An RFID tag is a bit like a unique bar code that can transmit its data back to a reader located up to about 20 feet away. (The RFID tag gets its power from the reader, which limits its range.) There's related technology called NFC (near field communication) that works like RFID, but with a range of about four inches.
Right now, to use your cell phone as an admission ticket, boarding pass or payment system, you have to get it out and have its display scanned by a reader. With NFC, you simply have to place your phone next to the reader, and with RFID, you just have to walk within a few feet. That enables cell phones to become much more efficient and powerful tools for personal identification and transactions. With this technology, your cell phone finally can replace your wallet, becoming the single tool for managing everything you now carry around in that.
So why is Disney spending a billion bucks to create its own RFID system, when cell phones will provide this same functionality in just a few years? That's an excellent question, but let's remember that the big expense for Disney isn't in creating MagicBands (an RFID tag costs pennies to create) -- it's in building all that stuff that will do things in response to the presence of your RFID tag. By going ahead with MagicBands, Disney can be first to market with this functionality in its parks, while launching the system on its own timetable, rather than having to wait for Apple and everyone else in the mobile phone market to decide to start implementing RFID/NFC first.
But that implementation is coming. And it creates some real questions for the public about who's going to be reading our mobile-phone RFID tags, and what they're going to be doing with that information. Do really want every person and business you pass on the street to be able to see the content of your wallet?
Why pick on Disney, then? The company has a good reputation for customer service and protecting consumer data, and it ranks among the world's most trusted firms. As Disney theme park visitors, we already trust the company with gobs of information about us and what we're doing on our vacation.
Because this isn't about Disney. It's about Apple, Google, Verizon, AT&T and every other company that will one day engage in RFID-based consumer tracking, and letting them know that Congress will have some questions about the implementation of this technology. That's why Markey sent his letter to the press, instead of sending it privately to Disney days in advance.
By being the first big company to implement a wide-scale, RFID-based, consumer tracking system, Disney gets to be the company that Congress (the elected representative of the people, remember) asks to answer those questions. If Apple had installed RFID tags in the iPhone 5, and published the same information about privacy that Disney has about MyMagic+, you'd better believe that Apple would have gotten that letter, too.
RFID/NFC techology isn't going to help anyone if people are afraid to use it. That's why it's important -- for consumers and the businesses that invest in RFID/NFC -- to have some ground rules in place regarding the implementation of RFID reading that instill consumer confidence in these systems. Disney's already built that consumer trust. But other companies haven't -- and many don't deserve it.
By asking his questions, Rep. Ed Markey gave Disney CEO Bob Iger an opportunity to sell the public on the safety, convenience and power of RFID. Instead, Iger chose to attack Markey. By doing that, Iger missed a huge opportunity to sell his company's billion-dollar investment to the public. Perhaps that's why Disney PR reps are hustling now, making calls and sending emails to shift the focus back to Disney's privacy statements and explanations of the technology.
Many Disney fans are reflexively taking Iger's side (see the comments after my previous post). But I think it's important to see what's happening with MyMagic+ in context of a larger emerging public conversation over the use of RFID tracking. You might trust Disney. But do you trust every other company out there, too?