Mickey is watching you: Does Disney's new 'Magic Band' infringe on consumer freedoms?

The 'Magic Band' will make it easy to do and pay for anything at its theme parks. Rhodri Marsden investigates this hi-tech sorcery.

Many of us have had our patience tested as we wait in line at a tourist attraction or festival. Waiting times are often wildly disproportionate to the mundane rewards that await us – a disappointing ride, a lukewarm burger, bladder relief – and during those moments we may ponder how much we'd be prepared to pay to make the queue evaporate.

So here's an offer: how about helping the organisers improve your experience by giving them information about your activities, information that's been automatically collected by a smart wristband? Some of us might consider this a good deal; others may resent the way our privacy continues to be used as a bargaining chip in a game that's loaded heavily in favour of big business. But whatever your gut instinct, these smart wristbands, equipped with RFID (Radio-frequency identification), look set to become a sensor-swiping, information-gathering part of our holiday season.

Any emerging technology related to RFID tends to raise hackles. Ten years ago, supermarkets trialled an anti-shoplifting scheme where RFID tags were attached to Gillette Mach 3 razorblades and their movement around the store linked to cameras; the tags were soon referred to as "spychips" – a name still favoured by their most vehement critics.

Christian fundamentalists, meanwhile, likened RFID to "The Mark Of The Beast", citing chapter 13 of the Book of Revelation. On a technological level they're just tiny chips, as small as a fraction of a millimetre wide, that can wirelessly transfer data to a reader, making them perfect for the identification of goods and a godsend for stock management systems. But as soon as they're attached to human beings, controversy inevitably follows; it seems that people don't like to be thought of as goods in transit, cattle or sex offenders.

The latest kerfuffle has resulted from Disney's plan to introduce an RFID wristband – "the MagicBand" – at its parks during 2013. It would function as a room key, a parking ticket, a pass for certain rides, a payment system and, if you opted in, a personal ID that would, say, allow Disney characters to greet you or your children by name. The online reaction to this plan ranges from "awesome" to "terrifying".

Disney says that it's trying to "appeal to customers more efficiently" in a way that's "transformational" to its business; critics say that it enables the company to "monitor, track and analyse your every activity". When the plans became public, Congressman Ed Markey complained to Disney about the "surreptitious use of a child's information", a claim that was deftly rubbished by the company – but the move still furrows the brows of privacy campaigners, including Nick Pickles, director of Big Brother Watch.

"RIFDs [which he pronounces to rhyme with Triffids] were, until recently, a dumb tracking technology. Just a dot, moving around within a certain radius. But when you add your spending patterns to that, details of what you're doing as a consumer, this can throw up an incredibly detailed profile of your movements." It's clear to see how this kind of information is tremendously valuable to anyone involved in events management; the question is where said information lies on the sliding scale between utility and, well, spying.

One popular misconception is immediately rebutted by Steve Daly, director of ID&C, a Kent-based supplier of RFID wristbands to (amongst others) the Coachella music festival in California. "Some people think you can track the whereabouts of people if you're wearing an RFID wristband," he says, "which is basically not true. Most RFIDs have a reading distance of two inches or less, so unless someone comes up and puts a reader on your wrist, you're not going to be tracked." He acknowledges that there are higher-frequency RFID tags that can be read from distances of a few metres which would, say, allow footfall to be monitored for health and safety reasons – but he stresses that this "is not GPS".

As yet, no major music festival in the UK has followed the US's lead on RFID – so what's going to eventually persuade them to take the plunge? "RFID is a platform," says Daly. "You can put different modules on it: ticketing and access control, cashless payments, social media integration… So you may have that person's registration details – their age, their postcode – together with what they like to consume, who their friends are and where they like to socialise. This is very rich data that's not really available anywhere else."

But even if that data was anonymised to merely collect behavioural patterns of a particular demographic, privacy campaigners are still wary. "Just because you haven't written someone's name down next to this information doesn't mean it's not private," says Pickles. "It undermines a consumer's individual ability to control data about them."

Data laws have a knowledge and consent obligation at their heart, and for its part, Disney stresses that the MagicBand is an opt-in system that no one is obliged to use. "As far as the law is concerned," says James Mullock, head of privacy and data law at Osborne Clarke, "there's nothing inherently illegal with the use of RFID chips so long as this and other data protection law obligations – such as keeping the information secure – are met. [But] there is a trade-off which needs to be considered carefully by companies who use RFID technology. Through openness they need to win the confidence of their customers, and therefore their consent to being tracked."

The question is whether the carrots being dangled alongside RFID wristbands are simply too tempting to refuse – and this is an issue that even Daly, as someone working in the industry, recognises.

"In our experience," he says, "the percentage of people opting for the wristbands is in the high 90s, because of the features and incentives built in. If the choice is, say, between wearing the wristband and walking two miles to exchange cash for a token, you're going to opt in, aren't you?"

This is one of Pickles' major concerns about RFID. "We call it the Home Office choice," he says. "If you don't go through the body scanner that's your choice, but if you choose not to, you can't fly. It's not much of a choice."

And so we're back to our impatient wait for a rollercoaster or our fast-food fix; faced with the choice of poring over an incomprehensible list of terms and conditions or wearing the magic pass, I know what I, as a weak-willed consumer, would do. Now give me that wristband.

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