Big Brother in a Mickey Mouse Costume?


Through its new MyMagic+ program, Disney will be able to track park vistors’ every move, and thereby tailor a customer’s experience. Is privacy an issue, or is consent enough?

Disney is making some big changes to its theme park that are making headlines this week.  No, not a new Finding Nemo 3D experience or Mickey Mouse-shaped churros — something a little more “Big Data”-y.

As the New York Times reported earlier this week, Disney World will be introducing a new program over the next few months called MyMagic+ that will drastically change the way Disney World visitors (over 30 million people a year!) do just about everything from purchasing food to standing in line for Space Mountain. The MyMagic+ program centers around a RFID-equipped, multi-function wristband — a MagicBand — that park attendees can opt-in to wearing during their visit. The scannable band is designed to be an all-in-one admission ticket, room key, FastPass and — get this — a payment account that your little ones can use to shop!

The purpose behind this is, of course, to provide a more customized and targeted experience for Disney patrons as they make their way through the enormous park filled with endless purchasing options and long lines. The bands allow Disney to know which attractions a customer visits, what they purchase, and when they purchased it, and so the park-going experience “can be more enjoyable for consumers”, explains Disney Parks and Resorts chairman Thomas O. Staggs. “If we can enhance the experience, more people will spend more of their leisure time with us,” AKA more profits. MyMagic+ will only be at Disneyworld in Orlando for now, but imagine the amount of data Disney will collect when it implements it across all its operations. Its parks are estimated to have 121.4 million admissions a year, generating $12.9 billion in revenue!

As is the case with all of the digital breadcrumbs we leave behind on a daily basis, there are numerous uses for the information Disney will obtain by tracking consumer behavior, and there are of course some unexpected uses that might arise in the future. For now, Disney can pair data from the MagicBands with information the user provides, such as a child’s birthday or favorite color for more “personalized interaction with Disney employees”. Employees will have to re-train, but MyMagic+ helps Disney track and manage its workforce to boost efficiency.

The bands themselves will contain no personal identifiable information and you can choose whether you want to wear one, so is everything AOK on the privacy front?  Not really. Privacy isn’t just about consent or whether data is anonymized or not. The problem with many technologies today is that they are operating in an unclear terrain. Leading privacy expert Daniel Solove explains that we need to think more critically about data aggregation, rather than just consent.

People may willingly disclose small bits of information about themselves inconsequential at the time – which diet cola they prefer, for example – but when many pieces of data are assembled together, data analytic tools can make judgments and predictions and reveal other facts about you that you didn’t realize you had revealed…If I’m deciding at a particular point in time about whether to give my data, I have no idea about how, sometime down the future, 5 years later…a new fact pops up because some other piece of data I gave 3 or 4 years ago is combined with other pieces of data

It’s also important to think about how the MagicBand will be marketed. Are people given enough information to assess the risks if they aren’t framed as privacy risks?

Bruce Vaughn, chief creative executive for Walt Disney Imagineering says that Disney “wants to take experiences that are more passive and make them as interactive as possible — moving from, ‘Cool, look at that talking bird,’ to ‘Wow, amazing, that bird is talking directly to me.”

Children will be enthralled. While we’re still getting used to online tracking, soon there will be a generation for whom both online and offline tracking might be the norm. But while we might not mind a talking bird that knows our name in a theme park, what happens when trackable devices become the norm in places like malls, and schools? If Disney is willing to invest a billion dollars in these trackers, surely we can expect others to follow suit. We’re entering a new age of corporate-consumer interaction and we won’t fully know what it looks like until it arrives.

About Sona Makker

Sona is a first-year law student studying technology law at Santa Clara University. She’s an advocate for online privacy, digital rights, and public access to the public domain. If she’s not arguing with her siblings over whether This American Life is better than Radiolab, you’ll probably find her whipping up vegetarian dishes, or attempting to do a headstand in yoga class.
Posted in: Culture, Privacy, Technology
  • Dave

    Another mousetrap for consumers who wear data