Perspective: The Markey/Iger fight isn't about Disney -- it's about the future of RFID tracking

January 29, 2013, 9:47 AM · Here's one more piece of information that might provide some welcome perspective about MyMagic+ and Disney's MagicBands for guiding and tracking your day in a Disney theme park.

In a few years, your cell phone is going to be a MagicBand.

Lego iPhone
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?


Replies (31)

January 29, 2013 at 10:07 AM · The other reason that Disney isn't waiting on this to show up in cell phones is because not everyone has a cell phone. Frequently, parents have phones, but not the kids, yet everyone needs an admission ticket. the other thing is, if you link your season pass to your phone and then sell the phone, does the buyer get your pass, too? They do if you forget to tell disney about the switch.

Also, from a customer service standpoint, having one way of doing things makes telling people what to do easier.

As it is:
They can say 'Take your magic band and do blah blah blah'

Relying on RFID in phones or other devices:
They can say 'Does your phone support RFID? If so, then hold your phone blah blah blah. Oh that didn't work, make sure RFID functionality is turned on. On android, drag down from the top and look for the RFID logo, on iPhone, go to system prefences and look there for the RFID logo. If you don't have a phone that supports this, take your magic band and blah blah blah'.

January 29, 2013 at 10:11 AM · You should have said this sooner, sir!
January 29, 2013 at 10:31 AM · But there is a HUGE difference between installing RFID in every cellphone - something that is becoming an essential piece of modern day living - and installing it in an optional wristband that you works only within a theme park environment. If Markey wanted to initiate a debate about RFID in society in general he could have done so but he didn't - he chose to attack Disney so I don't see this is the same debate.

I have no qualms about using this sort of technology to enhance my theme park experience - but do I want every advertising board in every city I visit reacting to my presence with a 'Hi David, have you thought of buying....' simply because my cellphone contains an RFID? That's a different matter entirely.....

Doing it this way gives Disney the opportunity to use the technology on their terms and, most importantly, to LIMIT it's use....

I still think Iger's response was measured in the circumstance.....

January 29, 2013 at 10:42 AM · Don't get why they're complaining about RFID at this point in time, it's not new technology, we could have discussed this 20 years ago. Many ski resorts use RFID cards instead of lift tickets now. That's pretty similar to a theme park RFID system and I'm sure it offers them some kind of tracking abilities. EZPass systems may be one of the most extensive uses of RFID and those can potentially be more invasive than whatever Disney is planning. In New York EZPass tags are scanned to track the speed of vehicles and give travel time estimates. We have to trust that data is only used for that purpose.

NFC on the other hand is a better topic for discussion, that's a newer protocol can actually transmit data which poses a real security risk.

January 29, 2013 at 12:59 PM · And this...

tells you everything you need to know about this story....

January 29, 2013 at 1:33 PM · Robert writes: "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."

I Respond: Are you claiming that you know for a fact that this was the politician's intent? As a journalist, have you contacted the politician's office and ask for his comments?

January 29, 2013 at 2:32 PM · Robert: A couple of other site's forums are recommending your recent journalistic articles on Next Gen/Magic + as good reads. Links to TPI were provided.
January 29, 2013 at 3:38 PM · I see where Robert has interviewed Rep. Markey in the past:

If Robert has the chance to interview him again, perhaps the first question should be, "Why was it necessary to make your inquiry about Disney public?"

January 29, 2013 at 3:38 PM · To THCreative: I don't think that Robert was saying that Markey was trying to give Iger an opportunity, merely that he DID give Iger an opportunity. I think Robert is totally right on this one. Markey is engaging in political theatre, he is using this for political gain, no doubt about it. All Iger had to do was not grab at the bait. But he did grab at it! If Iger had presented the privacy policy without getting worked up, then he would make Disney look reasonable, and Markey look paranoid. What did Iger accomplish by being confrontational? He made it seem like perhaps Disney DOES have something to hide here (or, at the very least, that Disney puts its bottom line ahead of guest experience, which isn't a good message either).
January 29, 2013 at 3:47 PM · I'm a huge RFID skeptic. I wouldn't want Disney to track my activities. I think Iger ruined a good opportunities to educate and reassure people of the safety of the technology. Now, I'm not so sure I care for Disney. Maybe they do want to be Google and Apple in an even worse way.
January 29, 2013 at 3:52 PM · Rep Markey has decided to run for U.S. senator when John Kerry becomes Secretary of State. I think a lot of this is probably politics for him to get his name in the paper.
January 29, 2013 at 3:53 PM · Mr. Sirota, Please keep in mind that Rep. Markey has been pursuing federal regulation of the theme park industry for more than a decade. His efforts are not just aimed at Disney. His efforts have been opposed by Disney, Universal and Busch Gardens as well.

Orlando Sentinel 2007: "As expected, a Congressional panel late last week voted down a proposal to have the Consumer Product Safety Commission begin regulating theme parks... After the (legislation was ... shot down ... the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions — which opposes federal regulation of parks — credited the Walt Disney Co., NBC Universal and Anheuser-Busch with helping defeat it.

"Also, I wanted to give a big "thank you" to the Washington representatives of Anheuser-Busch, Disney and Universal, as well as lobbyists from Williams & Jensen [a lobbying firm that represents IAAPA] who literally spent days on the Hill meeting with elected officials and their staff to educate them on this issue," IAAPA’s Stephanie Thienel wrote on the association’s blog.

Theme Park Insider thread in 2003:

While these pieces of legislation deal with issues of safety to protect guests from physical injury (a worthy consideration), by publicly attacking the theme park industry's largest operator in a VERY public manner, it seems reasonable to question whether Rep. Markey's priorities are to protect consumers or to simply undermine the industry. If that's the case, Mr. Iger's firm response seems appropriate.

January 29, 2013 at 3:57 PM · And (again) from Adweek: "While the MagicBand sounds like it can do everything except make coffee, it acts more as a pass key than portable computer. It doesn't collect nor hold personal information. Nor does it use GPS to track location. Like the plastic card keys used by hotels, if lost, the MagicBand cannot be linked to an individual."
January 29, 2013 at 4:14 PM · "the MagicBand cannot be linked to an individual."

But it can certainly "be" linked to an individual if this person carries it, as that is the point. If lost and another person carries it, all activities will be recorded as if done by the original person. Thus, the technology must know when it is not okay to keep records for this particular RFID.

January 29, 2013 at 4:25 PM · Anon Mouse: "If lost and another person carries it, all activities will be recorded as if done by the original person."

I respond: Again (at least according to Adweek), "It doesn't COLLECT nor hold personal information."

I respond (and this is an academic question) how will activities be "recorded?"

January 29, 2013 at 4:40 PM · "It doesn't COLLECT nor hold personal information."

Disney is the collector and recorder of information. You have to ask how Disney collects such information.

The RFID continues to provide a signal that any RFID reader can record.

Think of the RFID and the Reader as a pair. This constitues the technology. The fact that the MagicBand doesn't collect information is sort of like missing the point. If you destroy it, it is the best way of deleting your previous RFID signature (your digital persona). The actual data is contained in a database that has all this RFID data and where you have been, which was previously read as you went thru the turnstiles and everything else they cooked up.

January 29, 2013 at 4:47 PM · Ahhhhhhh ... thanks! Got it.
January 29, 2013 at 4:52 PM · Here is more helpful information.

What information do we collect through your use of the RF Devices?

When you touch your RF Device to touch points located throughout the Disney parks and Resort hotels, your location is determined based on your interaction with the RF Device reader. In addition, if your RF Device comes within proximity of one of the readers located throughout our Disney parks and Resort hotels that automatically recognize RF Devices, we are able to determine that your are near that reader. The readers that automatically recognize RF Devices may not be visible to you.

The RF Devices contain only a randomly assigned code that securely links to an encrypted database and are configured not to store any other information about you. This allows us to associate your RF Device with the benefits you have purchased and to collect information regarding your interactions with the various RF Device readers at Walt Disney Parks and Resorts locations. Your interactions provide us with information about the products and services you experience in the parks; your wait time for rides, restaurants and other attractions; and similar types of information.

January 29, 2013 at 5:18 PM · The whole tracking concept reminds me of Minority Report. Disney will be monitoring the movement of anyone wearing a wristband as the appear on different readers throughout the park.

It just seems to me that something touted as "magic" has a greater purpose other than enhancing the guest experience.

January 29, 2013 at 6:08 PM · I'm confident that Disney is at least complicit in the buying and selling of personal information since I see Disney banner ads (as well as Universal and Sea World) on almost every website I visit.

And no, I don't only visit theme park site :P

January 29, 2013 at 7:45 PM · Banner ads are just advertising buys. I doubt they have anything to do with buying & selling personal information.
January 30, 2013 at 12:16 AM · Big Brother is alive and well...
January 30, 2013 at 12:36 AM · @ Aaaron.

The banner ads you see are as a result of your web browsing history so blame Google or whoever you use.... Disney has nothing to do with the fact that you see their adverts on your pc - the data has come from your PC itself and Google (or whoever) merely selects ads from its banks that ti thinks are appropriate to your interests as revealed in your browsing history....

So don't blame Disney for that at least....

January 30, 2013 at 6:15 AM · Web browsing history is information that is valuable facebook, Google,ect. If theme parks make their ads available to them than that makes them complicit as a third party.

That being said, I'm an adult so I don't really care that much.

January 30, 2013 at 6:29 AM · The government is already tracking our internet and is poisoning our water supply with lead to keep us sick. This is just a case of Big Brother being threatened by Bigger Brother. We are all just serial numbers in the end.
January 30, 2013 at 6:46 AM · 'Mr. Sirota, Please keep in mind that Rep. Markey has been pursuing federal regulation of the theme park industry for more than a decade. His efforts are not just aimed at Disney. His efforts have been opposed by Disney, Universal and Busch Gardens as well.'

How does this change any of what I said? I agree with you on this. I'm saying that Bob Iger had an opportunity to win this round by not engaging, and instead drew a whole lot of people into an awareness of a "problem" that they didn't think they had. The fact that we are all arguing about this in these comments means that Markey won. His constituency obviously loves it when he fights these kinds of fights (or else he wouldn't have been at it for over a decade). The best way to deal with that kind of political grandstanding is to reassure, not to engage. That's all I'm saying.

btw, for what it's worth, I think that MyMagic+ is a huge flop already from a PR perspective for Disney. I want WDW to build new rides and lands. I am NOT excited about a billion dollars spent on a technology that doesn't seem to have a huge upside for guests (besides making Disney more money). I could be proven wrong, maybe it will be amazing. But Disney has NOT sold me on this yet, and I don't see how Iger having a hissy fit helps with this one bit.

January 30, 2013 at 8:16 AM · Just to add a little humor to this thread. Didn't Universal predict Next Gen My Magic+ when they opened the Terminator 2 attraction. Little did we suspect...
January 30, 2013 at 2:09 PM · Mr Sirota writes (regarding my post to him): "How does this change any of what I said?"

I Respond: It doesn't. It never intended to. I was simply adding information regarding Markey vs. the theme park industry that was not noted on this thread (or your post) and can be reasonably regarded as the justification behind the Disney company’s decision to make an aggressive public response.

Mr. Sirota writes: "I'm saying that Bob Iger had an opportunity to win this round ..."

I Respond: No existing evidence that he "lost."

Mr. Sirota writes: " not engaging, and instead drew a whole lot of people into an awareness of a "problem" that they didn't think they had.”

I Respond: Markey decided to make the fight public. Disney responded accordingly.

Mr. Sirota writes: “The fact that we are all arguing about this in these comments means that Markey won."

I Respond: That's a pretty subjective analysis on your part -- both whether or not Markey "won" or whether or not the content of a TPI thread is evidence of anything. At this point I would contend the situation is inconclusive as it is still in-flux and the conditions determining if anyone has (or can possibly) “win” in this situation remains undetermined.

Mr. Sirota writes: His constituency obviously loves it when he fights these kinds of fights (or else he wouldn't have been at it for over a decade).

I Respond: I am not in his constituency and would not draw conclusions about what has made him popular (or at least more electable than any would-be opponent). However, considering that all nine of Massachusetts' members of the US House, as well as both members of the US Senate and the Governor are Democrats, I'd be comfortable with the implication that party affiliation has more to do with Markey's success than his battles with the theme park industry.

Mr. Sirota writes: The best way to deal with that kind of political grandstanding is to reassure, not to engage.

I Respond: Terms like "the best way" imply a qualitative state that is based to some degree in conjecture. For example, some might think that the best way to deal with a political bully is to slap him around for all to see. And although I don't know for sure, I doubt Mr. Iger's response was a sole effort on his part and was likely reviewed by the company’s lawyers or public/press relations. I will also bet all of the money in my pockets against all of the money in your pockets that the correspondence was vetted by Disney's sizable lobbying presence in Washington DC – and these are the people who have been dealing with Markey for years and years and years.

Good talk! Best wishes!

January 30, 2013 at 5:08 PM · Defend Disney at all costs..... oh, the sadness.
January 30, 2013 at 5:49 PM · Yes, TH, it was a good talk! I hope you didn't take my tone to be too antagonistic. I think your perspective on Disney's motivations and the take that their PR team may be behind the approach makes a lot of sense. Politicians do things for a lot of reasons, too, and thanks for reminding me of that. What I was trying to get at was that whatever Markey's motivation, Washington politics can be an interesting mix with entertainment business. I don't view one or the other as perfect or terrible. I love a lot of what Disney does, but I definitely see them as a corporation out to make money, not necessarily to better humanity. I guess a part of me is glad that someone from outside of the Disney bubble asked a question about this. Some (definitely not all) of what Markey said brought up questions I had wondered about myself. With Facebook changing privacy policies seemingly at random (often to try to support new revenue streams by selling information shared under the pretense of it being private), I think some folks, myself included, have questions about the direction corporations go with the data they mine from us. If Disney is successful in this venture, it seems likely to be repeated elsewhere. So now may be a good time to have these conversations. I don't see the theme park industry suffering as a result. I would imagine Markey to be quite an annoyance if you are a Disney exec. To me, it's just funny to watch. Some on these comments seem offended that anyone would challenge Disney's moral compass (or perhaps it is a stronger distrust of Washington politics). I don't mind politicians getting involved if the end result is a better product for the consumer. If we disagree, I respect that. Either way I've enjoyed our chat.
Good evening!
January 31, 2013 at 4:47 PM · NB writes: "Defend Disney at all costs..."

I Respond: Verses "attack Disney at all times?"

I'm not sure about the use of the words "at all costs," but when it comes to my family members who are cast members, the hundreds of thousands of people in my community who rely on the hospitality industry for employment I advocate defending Disney, Universal, Sea World, Legoland, Fun World, Old Town, Busch Gardens whenever possible.

This article has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.

Park tickets

Weekly newsletter

New attraction reviews

News archive