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You don’t want your privacy: Disney and the meat space data race

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When my wife and I went backpacking around Europe 10 years ago, we made a vow to each other. After seeing the stunningly blue waters off Greece, the paragliders sailing through the Austrian Alps, the idyllic countryside of Slovenia, we said, “Never will we take our children to Disney World. Why would you need something so manufactured when you have the real world?”

It’s 10 years later. And I left for Disney World on Thursday. The thing I didn’t understand, which, now that I have three boys, I know in my bones is this: You can’t see Buzz Lightyear while backpacking.

Oh well, Walt! You win.

But as a data scientist at a tech company, I have to admit, I’m geeking out over the technology. Disney World is like a petri dish for advanced analytic techniques because the hotels and parks are all tied together in one large, heavily controlled environment. If you ever wanted to star in The Truman Show, a trip to Disney is the next best thing — it feels like a centrally planned North Korea only with more fun, less torture and the same amount of artifice.

From the mundane to the magical, the fact is there’s probably an engineer behind the scenes at Disney who has thought through it. Disney has industrial engineers that work on everything from optimal food-and-beverage pricing and laundry facility optimization, to attraction performance and wait-time minimization (the vaunted FASTPASS system).

MagicBands: like magic beans, except they grow data

But those tried-and-true efforts at optimization were just the appetizer. Earlier this week, there was a knock on my door and there on my doorstep sat a little bit of hand-delivered magic. I opened the package with the sweaty palms of anticipation because, to me, this package represented a billion-dollar investment by Disney in big data analytics.

That investment is called MagicBands. They’re a new technology for the park, and the program officially opened up about a month ago. Disney has thought of everything.

The soft matte finish ...
The soft matte finish … Source: John Foreman

The box in which the bands arrived rivaled Apple in its Incredibles-themed design. Each magic band was tucked in a slot, standing up straight, ready to be put on by the vacationer like some fabled amulet. Each rubber wristband was smartly colored with a soft-touch matte.

But under all that visual appeal, beneath the surface of the band, was the reason for Disney’s huge investment: a sophisticated RFID tag. These bands, which are individually coded to each visitor, allow Disney to track individuals wherever they go in the parks and resorts with long-range RFID readers. You check into FASTPASS rides with your band, you purchase food by swiping your band and you use it as a key to your hotel room.

The bands are even uniquely colored and monogrammed with your family members’ names so that they won’t get switched up. Why? Because they don’t want their database to get confused and think that you, a 45-year-old man, rode the teacups instead of your little son Timmy. This is one of the first examples I’ve seen of physical design (e.g., monogramming and coloring) for the sake of digital data purity.

... the strict instructions about who can wear it.
… the strict instructions about who can wear it. Source: John Foreman

If ever there was a testimony to the importance big data has achieved in business it’s this: We will now shape our physical world to create better streams of digital information.

Mickey thinks you need some Buzz Lightyear time

Stop a moment and dream of the MagicBand possibilities.

The pitch that Disney is making is personalization. For each band, for example, Disney asks for the name and birthday of the person who’ll be wearing it. So if your kid is having a birthday in the park and there’s a character wandering nearby, that character can be notified to sneak up on your kid and creepily wish them a happy birthday individually.

Now, let’s dig a little deeper.

What does Disney get out of the deal? In short, it tracks everything you do, everything you buy, everything you eat, everything you ride, everywhere you go in the park. If the goal is to keep you in the park longer so you’ll spend more money, it can build AI models on itineraries, show schedules, line length, weather, etc., to figure out what influences stay length and cash expenditure. Perhaps there are a few levers they can pull to get money out of you.

Some 33-year-olds like the carousel.
Some 33-year-olds like the carousel at Disney’s California Adventure. Source: Derrick Harris

Or perhaps its models know that your family is staying in a high-dollar luxury Disney resort and that this morning you forked over lots of money at the Cinderella character breakfast. But right now your high-dollar family is stuck in a long line at an attraction. If your family gets too tuckered out or frustrated, you might be inclined to call it a day.

So, a model marks you as a candidate for “encouragement.” Within the park, a character is notified to make its way over to your children and entertain them until they can get on the ride. This increases enjoyment, decreases perceived exhaustion, and hopefully keeps you around for more meals, more trinkets and more arcade games.

The research questions that might be answered with this type of tracking data are endless:

  • What menu items served at breakfast at the resort hotel restaurants will result in the longest stay at the park?
  • Do we detect an influx of park-goers into the bathrooms for long stays on the toilet? Perhaps they all ate at the same place, and we can cut off a foodborne illness problem before it gets worse.
  • Is there a roller coaster that’s correlated with early park departure or a high incidence of bathroom visits? That means less money in the park’s pockets. How might that coaster be altered?
  • Is there a particular ride and food fingerprint for the type of park visitor that’s likely to buy in-park high-dollar merchandise? If so, can we actively get vendors in front of this attendee’s eye by moving hawkers to them at just the right time?

The allusion of freedom and agency still exist within the park, but with these bands, you are giving up much of your privacy and freedom to experience something “untailored” in exchange for a better time. Even if that better time is achieved by spending more money.

The future of big data is in meat space

“Meat space” (coined by William Gibson in Neuromancer) is a term for the physical world where our bodies (meat) move around and do meat-like things (for example, eat, jog or go clubbin’). The interesting thing about the term is it’s a play on “cyber space” — meat space is an internet-first way of viewing the world.

And that internet-first way of seeing the world is what’s driving these changes at Disney, casinos, insurance companies, etc. We’ve been “cookie-ing” people online and tracking their browsing habits for years, and in that contained environment, businesses have seen the value of acting on personal transactional data. But now businesses are taking this approach and applying it to meat space.

Why? Because cyber space is small, it starts and stops at internet-connected devices. Think of the transactions and interactions that are carried out each day in meat space. Think of the money spent in meat space (on your caramel macchiato, for instance).

While not everyone is online all day long, we’re all implicitly offline. Wouldn’t it be great it we could gather meat space data and use that to tailor the offline experience much like companies now tailor your online experience? “Personalizing your meat space experience” is a gross way of saying “pretty much control your life.”

Which is frightening. But that’s exactly what companies want to do.

Source: Flickr / joelogon
Source: Flickr / joelogon

It’s not new. It’s one of the fundamental goals of marketing. For example, a discount pricing model implemented on airline seats wants to control your booking decisions by adjusting prices. The control is targeted and specific, so you feel pretty good about it.

We now know this is Google’s end game. Self-driving cars, Google Glass and the purchase of Nest — Google is dying to get out of your computer and all up in your life. With Nest, Google won’t just know how you like your air to feel. It’ll know when you’re at work and when you’re at home. It gets pieces in a data puzzle that is your entire observable life.

Loyalty cards (those things you swipe at the grocery store) were the first salvos into this real-world data gathering. Now, department stores are doing a lo-fi version of MagicBands by tracking the hardware ID on your cell phone’s Wi-Fi card as you wander the store.

Hey, look! That’s the same Wi-Fi ID as the person who bought a necklace from us last week. Maybe a sales associate should propose a pair of earrings to them?

This is where data science is headed, and it’s part of the reason why there aren’t enough qualified data analysts to meet demand. The reach of the discipline is moving out of the browser and into every business that can gather data on your life.

But I’d like to keep my meat private, thanks.

At this point, I’m sure a lot of you are freaked out by the privacy implications of where all this is headed. Indeed, one journalist just compared what Disney is doing to the recent disclosures about the NSA’s own tracking programs. But at the end of that article there’s a big glaring difference between the NSA and Disney: “Disney fanatics, for their part, can’t wait to get their hands on the [MagicBands].”

We want MagicBands!

We don’t want the NSA tracking us, because we get nothing in return. It tries to sell us on “terrorism prevention,” but most people don’t experience that benefit in a visceral way. But this is not to say Americans won’t give up privacy for anything.

On the contrary, Americans are very, very cheap dates. For just a modicum of convenience, entertainment and comfort, I’m happy to give you a list of everyone I call and everywhere I go. That’s more than I’m sure the NSA has on me. And despite your privacy concerns, most of you are exactly the same way.

Don’t believe me? I recently installed a flashlight app on my phone. In exchange for this app that does no more than turn on my phone’s camera flash, I give it my geolocation all day long. Who owns this app? No idea. Probably some Ukranians. What I do know is that this app is worth like $5 to me, and yet that was enough to give these strangers all my info.


Same with Angry Birds (tracks location). Same with LinkedIn (can read AND WRITE my phone call data, can read my “calendar events plus confidential information”, etc.). Same with the freaking Shazam app that let’s me identify that song playing in the mall. Have you heard of Stylitics? You get your wardrobe mirrored back at you in a virtual closet –whatever that is — and Stylitics gets to sell your clothing data to retailers to better understand where else you shop beside their stores.

We’re all wringing our hands over the NSA, and meanwhile we’re handing our data as fast as we can to other entities for next to nothing. If the NSA were smart, it would buy Candy Crush Saga, change the permissions, and be done with it.

If we’re honest, we give privacy lip service, but we vote with our keypresses and our dollars, and the bands we strap to our wrists.

Expect your future meat space world to feel very much like your cyber space one. The next time your RFID tag lets Mickey know you’ve got diarrhea, maybe the stall door can make suggestions to you: “Customers who got funnel cake diarrhea also bought Maalox.”

John Foreman is chief data scientist at MailChimp.

66 Responses to “You don’t want your privacy: Disney and the meat space data race”

  1. Steve Grantz

    Great article.

    To be fair about the LinkedIn app, having access to my calendar allows the app to query who I am meeting with and show me links to their LinkedIn profile.

    That is highly useful.

  2. I just got back from a week at WDW and I loved using my MagicBand. I marveled at the data they were collecting. The only time it really caught me off guard was the first time I tapped into my FastPass+ for a ride and the nearby cast member said “welcome John!”

    The logistics is fascinating to me. I noticed that the scan points are monitored by cast members using iPads, yet the POS systems are using older hardware and software. The integration of all of this is awesome and quite frankly the privacy angle didn’t bother me at all. And I usually freak out about privacy.

  3. Great read and interesting to see more and more companies trying to dig into data to try and steer us.

    I couldn’t stop thinking about how it’s become just like Roller Coaster Tycoon in real life with Big Brother Disney controlling the mouse and keyboard.

  4. Barry sanders

    Disney … Walt Disney was a super pedophile.. there are “members” all over disney movies of the past… They constantly have alterior motives…
    Why do all of you sheeple put up with them? Buzz lightyear? .. bad excuse
    Nobody in the entertainment business can put up with their greedy practices..
    Disney is like a commercial that never ends… Advertise somewhere else ..

  5. truepixeled

    If you gave your flashlight app permission to your GPS information, you are an idiot.

    If this was an iOS app, Apple wouldn’t actually allow it into the store, and this story is purely fictional for hype purposes –

    Part of the approval process of all Apple App Store submissions is that the privacy permissions fit the application.

    A flash light app that requested GPS information would be summarily rejected.

    As an iOS app developer, I have to justify *actual* applicable service use before my app is approved.

  6. Forget NSA. The reason your computer leaks like a sieve is that corporations want easy access so they can install adware, tracking cookies, check what software you’re running, and so on.

  7. It’s Disney World. If you’re so paranoid about your movements being tracked AT A THEME PARK, the thing is completely voluntary DON’T TAKE IT. Get a regular ticket and a regular hotel room key.

    This revelation is about 6 months late, BTW. These bracelets have been around for a while.

  8. Ebrahim Allie

    I am so tired of personalisation. I don’t want to live in a bubble. I don’t want my every exeprience from web searches to holidays to tailor made just for me. Can’t I just be an anonymous guy at the bar ordering a drink without the bartender guessing what I want before I get there. It takes the spontaneity out of life. It limits my choices because someone else has already chosen for me. It limits how I perceive the world because like some celebrity diva the world is bowing to me and giving me exactly what I want when I want, and like some celebrity diva I can see a future where people freak out because the hotel didn’t already know how they wanted their coffee before they even sat down to breakfast. Give me the world, not my own personalised version. I filter out the things I don’t like on my own, thank you.

  9. What a bunch of nonsense, who wants to wear more hardware! Put all data on the one device you carry, regardless of the device. One device (many device choices), one world. No one wants to carry more than one device – – get rid of all the noise – – DL’s, Ins. Cards (auto, health and dental) , Credit Cards, Affinity Cards (coffee, plane, train and hotels). Keep it simple and stop sending us cards, paper and key chain tags. All of this can be managed on a single device. No paper, no plastic and no need for expensive animal hide card holders (no I am not an animal activist, humans are way more relevant). Stop the INSANITY, the WASTE, the REDUNDANCY and do not RFID humans.

  10. You can always choose not to buy stuff. Sorry, but you can. If you see a commercial, you can always choose not to buy. We are not sheep here. . . if a company wants to use my information to try and upsell me. . . I can say no. You make it seem like consumers have no control.

    You see a future where a bunch of sheep cannot help themselves, but I see a future population who will grow calloused and tired of being sold on stuff we don’t need.

    If those “upsell” tactics start failing. . . then they go away. If my “data” tells them I cannot be sold on anything unreasonable, then they may actually leave me alone and pick on someone else that they deem more “suggestible.”. Sounds like a win-win.

    • daviddennis

      This is absolutely the point I wanted to make.

      If they make this too obnoxious, not only do they not make the sale, they make people not want to return to Disney ever again.

      This is especially true if they twist our kids’ heartstrings so much they are almost forcing us to buy things. Then we will never return to a Disney park again, and we will complain to all our friends, etc.

  11. Hm, Chief data scientist for MailChimp is perfectly fine with ubiquitous tracking with only very vague disclosure on what data is captured, how long it is retained, how it is used, and who it’s shared with. Thanks John, it would have taken quite a bit more research to discover that MailChimp is a company that I want nothing to do with. Thanks again, you’ve saved me a lot of time and effort.

  12. See, the difference between Disney’s parks and my life is that I choose when I enter and leave Disney’s parks. I might be persuaded to let them track me in order to improve my experience within their park, but it think it’s lunacy to suggest that will translate into ready willingness to have my life tracked from birth to death. Asshole.

  13. Jonathan Lawry

    This was an amusing article on so many levels. Not the least of which is how the idealistic, refined, monied early marriage gets reconciled with the primarily colors, fast food, and inane music of raising a couple of kids. It happens to the best of us, pal. My courtship and pre-child marriage involved trips hiking in the Andes, sipping wine in New Zealand, and cute small house in DC. Now its Disney cruises and a house in the burbs. It’s the circle of life!

  14. Quote: “Or perhaps its models know that your family is staying in a high-dollar luxury Disney resort…. But right now your high-dollar family is stuck in a long line at an attraction….”

    First, knowing about that might tick off families that can’t afford to be “high-dollar.” Remember, they’re paying the same price for those rides and enduring the same long lines.

    Second, how does that cheer-up crew pick those bored high-dollar kids out of a line filled with mere low-dollar ones? Do they have pictures of them in addition to with names and birthdays? Unless they wave an RFID wand, I can’t see any other way how they could do it. And they could get those pictures as each child passes through a turnstile entering Disneyland.

    The third builds on what a former Disney employee told me, accompanied by a warning that his/her name must never be mentioned, He/she had been left terrified by what her former employer might do with various provisions of her contract, particularly non-disclosure agreements.

    What does Disney most fear coming out? Not long lines or equipment breakdowns. Not even food-borne illnesses. It’s child molesters among their employees, perhaps taking advantage of costumes and the trust a little child would have in Micky Mouse-like characters. And while that child’s family might be bought off with a huge out-of-court settlement accompanied by a non-disclosure agreement, an observant employee might go public with evidence of a string of such crimes badly handled. That would spell disaster for Disney.

    This personal data and tracking makes that danger worse. Now that employee can become a high-tech stalker, knowing where a child is, along with their name and birthdate, along with information about their parents. Several employees might even conspire together.

    Those who doubt this might ask themselves two questions:

    1. Why does Disney have such draconian non-disclosure agreements?

    2. Why are news reports of employee stalkers/molesters at places such as Disney so extremely rare? I can’t even recall hearing of one, although that can’t be because such things never happen.

    Remember, it’s not just the NSA’s vast data collection that’s disturbing. It’s the fact that the collection is concealed behind so much secrecy, including non-disclosure dictates. The same appears to be true of Disney. I wouldn’t fear an open and transparent Disney. I am sure Disney is doing all it can to prevent such crimes. But I do fear the Disney that former employee described to me.

  15. none nonee

    Joe , you are very wrong. I can confirm that within the next 12 months every single ride that offers photos at the park will be tied into bans (I should say publicly, they already are and they already are offering test to employees) , even if you don’t use fast passes. The logic is if by knowing who you are, and where you are sitting on a ride, they can automatically upload all of your pictures on rides online. This allows you to pull them all up at a later time and increases the chance of a purchase. It also makes it more convenient for people who would buy the photo anyway, they do not have to stop and waist park time. They also can now offer a package for access to online photos for all of your rides your entire trip , for say $30.00 . Now thats $30.00 for each person visiting and it cost Disney uploading a few photos . This barely scratches the surface of what this technology will be used for. It will not be optional, if you are staying on resort and plan on getting in your room you will need a wristband. Keycards have already been removed from some places completely.

  16. Timothy Poplaski

    Sounds great for smart people with a lot of money.

    Sounds like (even more) discrimination against folks that don’t have a lot of money, but worse, sounds like a way to exploit the vulnerable. Particularly children and the elderly.

      • Aidian Holder

        That’s exactly how it’ll be used. To cater to those who spend a lot of cash — companies want to attract those customers and cater to them. The frugal and the poor, companies have less incentive to ensure they have a good experience, and in many cases companies would rather actively discourage them as customers. The characters won’t be stopping to entertain the poor kids waiting in line.

        As for exploiting the vulnerable, these system will be calibrated to milk everyone for every penny they can get. Behavoiral analytics translated into consuer incentives are manipulative no matter what, and when those are targeted are vulnerable maybe it is exploitation, IDK.

  17. George Gene

    The difference in giving up data to disney vs an app vs the NSA is the legal “monopoly on force” that the government has vs a private individual or company. Theoretically, the government is there to protect us from what a private company might do with our data and there are laws and opt outs and lawsuits and other things there to protect you from private companies using your information without your consent. On the other hand, what the NSA is doing is in secret and in violation of the very laws that they say they are trying to protect, however there is little recourse for an individual to prevent abuse of their personal data or to even know what has or has not been collected about you and if it will be used against you in a court of law or to “disappear” you because of some perceived threat. Sure the Disney company could use its information for nefarious means, but its business is to provide entertainment and in general the two don’t mix and you are on more of an equal footing legally with Disney than you are the government.

    Consent and the framework in which the data is collected os the difference, not just the exchange which is just a small piece of the puzzle.

  18. You confused consumers not being able to change the defaults with acceptance.

    What happens as more consumers have phones that:

    1. allow app permissions to be overridden ( i.e. the flashlight app asks for geolocation but the phone always returns lat-long of 0,0 ?
    2. have mac ids randomized?
    3. don’t actively hunt for a wifi signal?
    4. or avoid Disneyland?

    I hope that we as a nation turn away from surveillance in any form by any entity.

  19. OMG, this article is wrong on SO many levels. The Magic Bands can’t track which rides you rode unless you used them for Fastpass. The MB can’t track which restaurants you ate in (unless you used it for payment) and even still the MB doesnt know who ate what. The MBs can’t tell when someone goes into the Bathroom.

    Come on do some research the MBs can only be used to track if you use them for something and right now its for payment, room keys and FP.

    • Um, the Magic Bands use short range RFID and long range Bluetooth. You think that the only spots that read the signals are those that you physically hold it up to?

      While probably not as detailed as GPS, they could (essentially, if they wanted to) triangulate where you went throughout a park, including what stores you went in to (and chances are, if you tie your Magic Band to your credit / debit card, you’re going to be using it a LOT), and quite possibly other rides that you didn’t use FastPass+ for.

      It’s really cool technology, especially when you see how fast it works and, as a data center nerd, think about everything that goes on when you scan your MB (how quickly database transactions need to occur, such as with credit card transactions, only a shit ton faster).

      Think about it – when you use your MB for FP+, do you really think it’s not collecting data for those other MB users that are just on the other side (or extremely close) of the FP+ lane?

    • Joe: The Magic Bands do both short-range (when you touch your band to a reader) AND long-range RF transmission. Short-range (“passive”) is for opening your hotel door, paying for something, checking in for a fast-pass, etc. The long-range ability (“active,” and thus requiring a small battery in the wristband) makes everything else this article talked about possible. You are indeed a beacon as you walk around, and software tracks you whether or not you’re touching your band to anything. We just came back from the parks last week and loved the whole system. FastPass reservations were wonderful.

    • That is incorrect. These bands work off of RFID methods. All Disney needs is a device to catch the signal at every ride, restaurant, etc.

      This article is spot on.

    • “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.”

      “The MagicBands can also be read by long-range readers placed in select locations throughout the Resort used to deliver personalized experiences and photos, as well as provide information that helps us improve the overall experience in our parks.”

    • I’ve taken several of these apart. There are two major components: The passive RFID piece, which is what you hold up at the entrances, FastPass locations, retail, etc. Then there is a much larger component that does require a battery.

      You think that’s a nice bracelet? Not really… It’s mostly an antenna! A copper antenna comes out from both sides of the middle piece and wraps itself most of the way around the band. It is very difficult to get them apart in one piece as the electronics are dipped in the rubber that you see on the bottom side (to make them waterproof).

      The long and short of it — this article is spot on. Even if they aren’t doing it RIGHT NOW, Disney is strategically putting itself into a position where it can do EXACTLY what was written in this article.

      The problem they are having right now is building out the wireless infrastructure to implement the level of tracking described in the article. They have some of it, but they have a long way to go before they can track you everywhere. Even the bathrooms. (Why wouldn’t they track the bathrooms? It would give them a better read of how frequently a given location needs to be cleaned…)

      And having used the MagicBand system several times now, I can call myself one of those sheep who trade privacy for convenience and an enhanced experience. Disney wants to make it as easy as possible to come into the parks and spend lots of money. With this single device, you can roam all through the parks and resorts easily. When it becomes this easy, it is like taking candy from a baby (but we all know it’s separating money from adults).

      So Joe, I implore you to spend some time on some of the Disney fan sites and do more of your own research before you blast the author and others commenting.

    • Are you serious? It’s an RFID chip in a controlled environment. It knows exactly where you are within a few feet, which means it knows if you’re on a particular ride or in a particular bathroom. It may not know what you, personally, ate, but a reader on a cash register will know that you’re the one that paid for what’s on receipt #xyz, and what your party consists of. Welcome to the basics of intelligence gathering.

    • Actually, the Magic Band CAN tell when you go into the bathroom. Here’s photographic proof of one instance where guests have to use the band to get into the bathroom (located near a hotel pool area).

      John does not mention that your fingerprint, used for biometric authentication at the park entrances. is also correlated with the Magic Band.

      Oh, and there’s a flashlight app built into the iOS 7 control center.

    • Disney will rule the world

      That’s not true at all. When we went to Be Our Guest, which has many many tables and you seat yourself. We preordered our lunch and when we found the table we wanted they came right to us without ever coming to check on us.