Are Disney MagicBand privacy concerns legit?
Published: December 4, 2013 at 2:34 PM
Photo courtesy Disney
Some visitors — and would-be visitors — have expressed concern. They're worried that Disney will be tracking their movements around the park, including what they do and what they buy throughout the day, and that Disney could use that information in ways that those visitors won't like.
MagicBands are the RFID-enabled bracelets that Disney's issuing to selected hotel guests as part of its new MyMagic+ system for managing Walt Disney World vacations. Visitors can use the MyMagic+ section of Disney's website or apps to make advance reservations for attractions, shows, and restaurants during their stay at Disney World, then use the MagicBands Disney supplies to access their hotel room, enter the theme parks or be admitted to their reserved ride, show, and meal times.
Visitors tap their MagicBands on their hotel room door or at checkpoints at park and attraction entrances. But the RFID chips in each MagicBand can be read from up to 30 feet away as well, as Kevin Yee detailed this week. Disney's already using that functionality to take on-ride pictures of MagicBand users on selected attractions. But inside sources have told us that the technology will play a part in creating interactive "moments" elsewhere in the parks, such as in Animal Kingdom's Avatar land, now in development.
Disney had planned to have expanded MyMagic+ to more visitors by now, but bugs and glitches as Disney attempts to scale up the system have slowed the roll-out. Yet it's clear from Disney's statements that it envisions more aggressive use of MagicBands in the future.
Let's face it: If Disney didn't track its customers while they were on company property, that would put Disney in the minority of large retail corporations. Smile for the security cameras next time you enter a store — they're there. And those discount cards you get from the grocery and other retailers? They're tracking every purchase you make.
Heck, when you carry a Visa or Mastercard credit card, you might as well be wearing a GPS device, as the card issuer is tracking the location of your payments, as well as their amounts. If you're carrying a cell phone, you are carrying a GPS device — one that cell carriers (and even the federal government) have the ability to track.
Want to go through life without being tracked? Use cash. Ditch the cell phone, the credit cards, and the discount "club" cards and carry nothing but cash. Walk up to the ticket booth and pay cash for a one-day, one-park ticket. As soon as you're through the front gate, throw that ticket away. Disney won't know who you are and won't be able to track anything you do.
Of course, that means you won't be able to use the Fastpass system for ride reservations. Nor will you be able to park-hop. Photopass pictures are out, too. But Disney will collect no data about your whereabouts and activities throughout the day, save for noting that one more (anonymous) person's ridden each ride you board, or that the company made those extra dollars for the stuff you've bought.
Most visitors, though, would like to have the opportunity to reserve no-wait ride times. Or to get on-ride photos automatically. (Or to get discounts when they go to the grocery store.) Such benefits are the price that companies pay to entice us to use systems that allow those companies to track us. Companies make that money back when their tracking efforts lead them to tailor offers or experiences that cause us to spend more money with those companies than we would have without those deals and discounts. In fact, Disney's facing lower-than-planned revenue in its theme park division now because MyMagic+ hasn't rolled out to the point where it's led to the big increases in guest spending that the company had anticipated.
If customers don't like the benefits of participating in a tracking system, they won't stick with them. Right now, the hassles of navigating MyMagic+ in beta testing have led many Disney hotel guests either to decline to participate, or to switch back to more traditional admission and room key cards, plus paper Fastpasses. But reports from in the parks suggest that's more due to people being unable to collect the benefits of MyMagic+ due to lost reservation times or dysfunctional MagicBands than to privacy concerns.
Let's not completely dismiss those concerns, though. While corporate tracking of consumer activity has become the norm in America, consumers ought to know more about who else will have access to that tracking data. We've raised concerns before about Disney cast members using MyMagic+ data as a "stalking app" to find out where individual guests they want to meet will be later in the day, then showing up off the clock to "just happen to bump into them." Disney should be making clear that anyone who tries something like that will be fired on the spot.
We've also wondered if Disney could use MagicBands to track alcohol sales more closely. Imagine getting cut off at Epcot because MyMagic+ has recorded that you've bought enough alcohol over the past couple hours to get an average-sized person to his legal limit. One of the challenges for tracking system is to ensure they don't feel creepy to the people who use them. While cutting off a drunk might be good practice (one that servers are supposed to be doing already), have a computer make that call automatically probably fails the "creepiness" test for many visitors.
Throw such concerns onto the pile of bugs, glitches, and challenges that Disney must overcome to make MyMagic+ scale to the level where it earns the company enough money to justify the billion-dollar investment. But if Disney fans and visitors object to the idea of Disney tracking their activity while on Disney property, well, they're going to have to do much more than refuse to wear a MagicBand to prevent Disney and other companies from tracking where they go and what they do.