Privacy at Disney World Waning? RFID and Tracking Updates

Written by Kevin Yee. Posted in Walt Disney World

Tagged: , , , , , ,


Published on December 03, 2013 at 3:00 am with 73 Comments

All of a sudden last week, based on some first-hand reports, there was reason to suspect that the Disney MagicBands do, after all, contain the capability to be read at a distance. The assumption until now was that Disney would only be able to track its visitors when they took the step of placing their MagicBands (MB) within millimeters of the readers to pay for purchases or join the FASTPASS+ line, and that customers were therefore in charge of deciding when Disney would know where they were. But if Disney can read MagicBands from a distance, they will be able to track users much more closely, and without their knowledge or minute-by-minute consent. Visitors may feel their privacy is at its lowest ebb when on a Disney World vacation.

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There are several online reports in the past week or so of people returning from a Disney World vacation and discovering that in their online MyDisneyExperience account (the front end of the MyMagic+ system), there are not only those PhotoPass pictures they took when they scanned their bands, but also photos of them while on the rides — Space Mountain, Splash Mountain, Expedition Everest, and so on. This was at first perplexing for them, since they never “swiped” their MBs at the rides. Given the belief that Disney needed to swipe a band to know you were there, it didn’t seem possible for Disney to connect the right pictures to the right people. And yet there they were.

The implication is that the bands CAN be read at a distance, without needing the customer to hold it less than an inch from the reader. That seems counter-intuitive. If the bands are capable of that all along, why bother having them need to touch the scanners directly for FASTPASS+ and for room charges? One answer: it seems more prudent to require actual contact (touching) to pay for things, to avoid fraud and accidental payments.

When the news broke a few years ago that Disney World was moving to a system involving RFID chips, there was a lot of speculation about privacy. Many of those who fretted the most about being tracked were pooh-poohed as the “tinfoil hat” types, sensing conspiracies when none were present. RFID-capable keycards and annual pass cards – sized and shaped just like credit cards – did not seem to present any opportunity for Disney to track users unless they actively swiped their cards. The RFID chip was just too passive; it couldn’t transmit. The debate about privacy then seemed to just die out many months ago, as if the matter were decided: Disney could only track you if you swiped.

Guess what? The MagicBands (which I reviewed positively last week) *do* have batteries in them. Disney has recently said the MBs should last 1-2 years and mentioned the battery as one reason for the shelf life. Johnathen Hopkins, one of the podcasters from WDWFanBoys, cut open his MB to find out what was inside, and the battery was easy to find.


There are many different types of RFID setups and the “read range” varies due to several factors (how large are the antennas, what frequency they are using, how much power is in the reader, is there a battery with the RFID chip, etc). It looks like current hotel keycards and annual pass cards use a more passive RFID chip with no battery, but MagicBands include a battery and thus could be read from further distances.

Confusingly, the plot thickens still more. Let’s dig a little deeper, as Mama Odie might say. Disney’s 2012 letter to the FCC (and other related documents here) specifies that the device, though it contains a battery, uses *PASSIVE* RFID, not active, and that at first glance might seem to limit the distance at which it can be read. But the science isn’t as linear as that (where passive=short distance, active=long). There are innovations in chip design and reader-power architecture that can still read from far distances of even a couple hundred feet. Based on similar devices, it looks like the MagicBand might be readable from 10 meters away, despite being passive. We know Disney is using a battery-assisted 2.4Gz RFID tag, and there exists a similar one on the market that can be read from 30 feet away.

There is even a technical explanation for the fact that MagicBands seem to work in two ways: up close for purchases and FASTPASS+, but long distances for ride photos and to-be-unveiled interactivity on attractions. Namely, the MagicBand FCC specs point out that it has two antennae–presumably, HF (short range) RFID for the restaurant, stores, and FP+ scanners; and UHF (longer range) RFID for the MyMagic enhancements on the rides.

The clues seem to be stacking up. Disney has a battery-operated RFID tag that matches those on the market which CAN be read from long distances, we’ve got first-hand reports by some travelers that on-ride photos are being added to their accounts, and we know of many spots in rides where videoscreens await their first power-up to offer customized greetings to tourists wearing MagicBands. It looks like long-distance RFID scanners are in the cards from these arguments alone.

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To make absolutely certain, we could turn to Disney’s own privacy policy on Magic Bands, which states (in part):

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. Guests can participate in MyMagic+ and visit the Resort without using the MagicBand by choosing a card, which cannot be detected by the long-range readers; however, certain features of MyMagic+ are dependent upon long-range readers, including automatic delivery of certain attraction photos and some personalized offerings are only available to guests using a MagicBand.

Well, there’s no doubt left now. I wonder if that explanation of long-range readers was there months ago, when this topic was more hotly debated online. I’m guessing it’s a more recent addition. In any event, we’ve got our answer: Disney is installing long-range readers, at least on the rides.

I’ve got no information about Disney’s intent with these readers. Maybe they are just there to enable convenient connections to your account, like the example of Space Mountain pictures appearing in your online account after your vacation even though you didn’t seek them out. Or maybe Disney wants to install more readers throughout the park. From a technology point of view, there is no reason Disney couldn’t build a sophisticated “war room” with a giant digital map of the Magic Kingdom, and show people by name moving through the park in real-time. Think of it as the Marauder’s Map from Harry Potter… except this would be real, not fiction.

Now, Disney might not want to engage in that much tracking, especially if coupled to individuals and their names. It would probably be bad for business if the public knew. But the salient point is that the technology exists to do that, and the MagicBands make it possible. So the customer is essentially trusting Disney NOT to do it.

What Disney probably wants is to harness the power of Big Data. If they track people by patterns and amalgamation (rather than bothering with what individuals are up to), they can spot ways to save money (shift workers to and fro) or to make money (open additional shops and restaurants). There’s nothing inherently evil in this, but the national conversation about privacy and Big Data is just beginning. One public school’s use of similar RFID chips faced legal challenges (specifically, against unreasonable search and seizure), but ultimately the school won out in court (and ironically discontinued the RFID program later anyway). Let’s also remember Disney is a private corporation, not the government.

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Disney *does* know who each RFID chip belongs to. What’s stored on the chip is just an account number that makes sense only to Disney. But Disney can decipher it and crosswalk that number to its own databases, and thus easily figure out who is doing what in the parks. If they wanted to, they could “drill down” to specific individuals, at least from a technology/data point of view (policy aside).

Some portion of the population won’t be bothered by this. Even if the parks installed enough sensors to know how long it took between your purchase of a burrito to your visit to the bathroom (and how long you stayed there), some folks won’t mind. Reading with the grain, such intrusions into privacy can give Disney valuable information to make the parks a better place. They’d know which bathrooms are the most visited, for instance–maybe this could cause them to take action and build relief facilities nearby? Besides, as they argue in similar discussions around the Web, privacy is already an illusion in today’s society. And they point out (correctly) that we are being tracked already to some extent. Those EZ Pass/Sunpass toll road devices use RFID, and their data is used (in aggregate) to give real-time traffic information.

But I suspect there will also be a portion of the population that will be less charitable if Disney does install sensors everywhere, and these customers discover that Disney knows who they are, where they are, how long they stayed there, and who they were with. One hesitates to invoke Big Brother, as the phrase is so hackneyed by now as to be emptied of almost all meaning, but RFID really and truly might be able to function as a way to track with that much granularity.

Earlier in 2013, Disney was in the headlines when a Congressman (Rep. Markey, D-Mass) asked in a letter if Disney’s new technology could be used to exploit children. Disney CEO Iger responded vigorously, but this was not the kind of national press the company usually seeks out. Will we see a repeat of that scrutiny now?

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Disney is often a leader not just in theme park rides, but in using technologies in general. I wonder if Disney is risking national exposure–and not in a good way–but being out in front with this level of power to track. Even if Disney elects not to *do* the tracking, it looks like the *potential* is there, and I suspect that alone might be enough to convince some people not to come at all. If that scenario happens, a big chunk of MyMagic+ will have collapsed in on itself. It’s supposed to be a money-maker (and I still think it can be!), not a money loser.

Your opinion on all this is welcome in the comments. Are you OK with being tracked on the rides even when you don’t swipe? Would it make you hesitate to visit Disney World if you knew your movements would be tracked, charted, and recorded for Big Data posterity?

WDW Clicks #6

This week we bring the telephoto lens to Seven Dwarfs Mine Coaster, explore the Norsk Kultur stave church gallery in Norway, tour the new bus loop at the Magic Kingdom entrance, see the Christmas tree in Be Our Guest, look at the new Joffrey’s coffee carts in DHS, see the altered AFI store and Sid Cahuenga’s, gawk at new Disney posters in Magic of Disney Animation, sample some new holiday food items at World Showcase, and glance quickly at Spice Road Table.

Direct link:

Creepy Cherubs?

I’m a big fan of insider tributes and homages at the theme parks (seeing as I am the author of WDW Hidden History, this is no surprise!), so of course I have long been fascinated with the cherubs in the ceiling of Be Our Guest. These cherubs are representations of the children of the Imagineers who worked on this part of Fantasyland.

Front line Cast Members were told when the restaurant opened that there were also images of the Imagineers themselves mixed in. Looking at the final results, this makes sense. Some of the cherubs appear to have pretty mature features and hairstyles!


Does the old-young combination look creepy to you? Have a look at all forty cherubs and let me know what you think!

About Kevin Yee

Kevin Yee is an author and blogger writing about travel, tourism, and theme parks in Central Florida. He is a founding member of MiceAge and has written numerous books about Disney parks (see

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  • DisneyFunGuy

    I am probably in the minority on this but, I am not happy with this new MagicBand that Disney is slowly introducing us to. And I think it all stems around the privacy issue for me. I understand when it comes to high-tech stuff now, that a lot of our privacy is not very private anymore. Such as Facebook, GPS, cell phones, etc.

    But I guess what’s different about the MagicBand (for me) is the fact it seems to monitor every second of what you do throughout the Parks. I really don’t need Disney knowing how long I’ve stood in line for popcorn, how long I’ve chatted with certain cast members/guests, or even how long I’ve been in the bathroom. They don’t need to know what I bought, or for how much. They don’t need to know what food I’m ordering at certain restaurants. And the idea of them taking photos of me without my knowledge/approval makes me feel un-easy. And then having ALL your personal information on that band is unsettling to me, as well. Over-all, I just don’t want Disney knowing every little detail about who I am.

    And I’m sorry to hear that Disneyland/DCA will be getting this same type of MagicBand. I realize there’s nothing I can do about it and will just have to roll with it. But I just don’t see why we need to make this drastic change. In a way, it’s a little scary how all this high-tech stuff is running our lives. Perhaps I’m more “old school” and like the way things are. Heck, I even enjoyed when we used to have A,B,C D and E ticket books. (sigh)

    • Hastin Zylstra

      I assume you’re an Annual Passholder, right? If you are, and you utilize your discounts, they can already do this.

      [quote] I really don’t need Disney knowing how long I’ve stood in line for popcorn, how long I’ve chatted with certain cast members/guests, or even how long I’ve been in the bathroom.[/quote]

      While they may not know how long a specific guest has been in the bathroom – the new Crane toilet sensors can actually output a graph of specific times in front of a toilet – to better adjust cleaning and flushing times. If you use Fastpass, they can determine your time between attractions (scans) and correlate that with scan times at the front gate to get an flow pattern for the parks.

      [quote]They don’t need to know what I bought, or for how much. They don’t need to know what food I’m ordering at certain restaurants.[/quote]
      If you use an Annual Pass for discount, or a credit card – they could keep and use this information already.

      [quote]And the idea of them taking photos of me without my knowledge/approval makes me feel un-easy.[/quote]
      Security cameras, and on-ride photos have already taken pictures for years.

      Disney already can take this information, and use it. They’ve just created a new system that vertically integrates all the information.

  • Indy Fan 1

    This is why we need a new CEO of Disney who will undo most of the company’s decisions in the past two decades. If it were me, I would completely scrap this whole system and go back to paper tickets.

  • eicarr

    I DARE them to try to do this in California. I plan on wearing a band so I can be part of the settlement.

    • Aviator621

      I guess you’re still waiting then for the class action lawsuits for all our smart phones and credit cards that basically track you in the exact same manner

  • JiminysCrickets

    Was at WDW early November 2013, had Lunch With An Imaginer. My guy was delightful and a major division manager at Magic Kingdom. He described using a portable “Tablet” out in the park and viewing a map of the Magic Kingdom, with each banded guest showing up as a “dot” in real time. There was a big cluster in Adventureland, then making an “announcement” about an event in Tomorrowland and watching in real time as part of the cluster broke off and headed to Tomorrowland. He remarked it was neat to see how different “blips” moved at different paces and how they used different routes to travel.

    He also said the Sorcerer Mickey hat in Hollywood studios was going to be cut up and removed. Too big and reinforced for hurricanes to be able to easily dismantled. He would not confirm (or deny) Star Wars land and removal of Osborn lights, and would not confirm that this is the last year for garland over Main Street due to float heights.

    Really recommend Lunch with an Imagineer, great food and 3 hrs with the best and the brightest!

  • Kidgenie

    First of all Great Colum Today. I found this riveting, even surprising, and yet I am not hitting a panic button. So had to ask myself “Why am I surprised?”, and “Why am I not in a panic or up roar”. First Surprise….

    Hind sight being 20/20, this should have been painfully obvious. Your Customized Small World Doll appearing to you while on the Attraction…. How exactly did I expect Disney was going to know exactly when to show it to me? My Fast Pass Plus window is a Hour wide! Load times and thus wait times vary. It cannot be the case that as soon as I redeem my Fast Pass Plus it will be X minutes until I am at the spot they want to show it to me. So yeah, the “long range” comes into play, though technically speaking, this still isn’t very long. Showing random stranger the customizations meant for me only because the part of the line I am in is close enough to the trigger point. Think about it, the Its a Small World line bridges over the boats as they approach the load station and this puts me very close to that final scene. The range as to be long enough to sense me on the boat passing buy, but not me while I am in a near by boat or just walking into the attraction. Now Panic…This isn’t as obvious and I really had to put more thought into this. And boy do I know how wrong everyone is going to tell me I am:) but here goes….

    This technology is scary no doubt, how it is used is more important. If your scared of My Magic Plus, you should be terrified of Facebook and Google to the point that you will no longer even turn on your computer. You think Disney is Date mining? They probably are, but not anywhere on that level. Honestly there isn’t anything in Disney’s motivations of making more money that scares me that much because of what Disney sells to make money in the first place. Its what they are “data mining” for that does NOT have me concerned. Do they care what car I drive? When I last purchased it? What type of dwelling I live in? The last time I used a Credit card at a Doctors office? At least so far this is not the type of private information that helps them make a sale of the product and services they are trying to sell.

    They want to know why I am in their park TODAY, what I did, and so later they can entice me back with similar offerings. I am ok that. They want to know what food I buy so again they’ll know when and what to tell me about their 100′s of F&B offerings. Ever had that moment you discover a food item you love and everyone else has known about long before you did? That’s lost sales to Disney and lost yummy-ness to me. I think this speaks to knowing what I want before I know what I want. Again, I don’t see the crime here.

    Ditto for purchases… what am I buying and why? So they find out I love trains, and now can send mailings about new merchandise they know I will have a much more likely hood of purchasing. Again, there are things I did not purchase simply because I didn’t know it existed in the first place. So yeah, they are going to trick me into buy more stuff I love. But if its stuff I enjoy, so be it. As much as this technology is, I don’t think there is anything about it that is going to get me to buy a Pink Minnie Mouse Stoveware set. I don’t cook, not a Minnie fan, and if anything, Disney may now know to not even bother to tell me about it. Great! Because nothing they do could trick me to opening my wallet for something I don’t want.

    In the end, the entire point of My Magic Plus, 2.0, 3.0….. etc etc… seam to be to get me to open my wallet more by date mining why I want to open my wallet. If its something I want its a win for both me and this corporation. I got what I wanted, and so did Disney, an additional sale.

  • loaloa55

    This time, too much is too much! is you’ve read Kevin Yee’s article you’ve understand why this Magic + stuff with all the magic bands, and more, is an abomination. And recently i also learned that now, in addition to bip their magic bands, AP tickets, etc… when they enter a park guests also have to scan their fingerprints!!! ( may be the fingerprints scan existed before they introduced Magic + but it changes nothing ). So, now, Disney has everything, including your fingerprints, and the mouse can know in real time where you are, what you buy, where you wait or don’t wait, where you eat, and even upload in real time your pictures on their server, all this with the good alibi to “provide a better experience to the guests”. Bullshits. They just need to do this because they’re so stupid that they need all this data to counter balance their lack of vision, and all this in the goal at the end to make more money.

    Is it any kind of Magic band that is responsible of the success of Disney’s California Adventure? No, the only thing responsible of it are the beautiful new Buena Vista Street and the great Cars Land, plus the World of Color show and new rides. Instead to spend their money where they should – building new attractions – the mouse prefer to spend more than $1.2B in this monstrosity which rings the end of all privacy. Because, yes, the pictures you shot in the parks ARE private.

    So, go ahead, give to Disney “the key of your house”, not your “real” house but even worst: everything which is part of your identity, including your fingerprints. But don’t come crying when you’ll realized that the world you’ll leave to your children has no innocence or privacy anymore, because no one forced you to accept all this. And when you’ll wake up and you’ll realized that you’ve contributed to create a world in which the word privacy don’t mean anything anymore, it will be too late, the System will have built his golden jail and you and your children will be locked in.

    It’s very simple and not difficult to understand: what you do, what you prefer, what you buy, which ride you like, what pictures you take are not the business of Disney. They don’t have to know it, it’s PRIVATE. Sure, it’ll take may be 5 more seconds to go through the turnstiles with your ticket instead than your magic band, or you’ll wait a bit longer to get inside the restaurant because you won’t have any reservation, but that’s the price to pay to keep the only thing that we really own, our privacy, our life, and what we’re doing with it. For Christ’s sake, this should not be that difficult to understand, is it?

  • Mike34

    My family of five has our 4th Disney tip in the last 5 years coming up in two weeks. I have read all the reviews of My Magic+ and how this can make Disney more money. At first I didn’t see this changing impulse buys for me, but doing the planning my wife and I decided this would be the first trip we would do park hoppers because we made all PM fastpass+ reservations.

    Now we don’t have to be in DHS @ 9am to ride Toy Story Mania or at Epcot to not wait 90 Minutes at Soarin. There is $300+ dollars to Disney for park hoppers (that we never would have bought) that allow me more freedom to visit the parks and not be stuck in long lines to see the attractions we want to see. Most people see fastpass+ as a – and maybe it will be I will let you know in 2 weeks but it already got more money from me and I will now get to enjoy AK (usually a 1 day per trip park for us) on a few different days instead of being stuck on our one day with Tusker House reservations. The last 3 visits we have had the worst weather of the trip on this day and not gotten to do one of our favorites (KRR) at all.

    All the talk has been about they are going to know what food you like and what attratctions you like and where you are, I don’t see a problem with that. If you are in their “house” then why shouldn’t they be able to know what you are doing, if you were in mine I would want to know.

    • CaptainAction

      Yeah, but everytime you decide to switch parks you are 20 minutes from the front gates of your current park, 5 minute walk to the buses, 10 minute wait for the bus, 10 minute bus ride, 5 minute walk to front of new park, 2 minutes for bag check line (if things are good), 15 minute walk to your first restaurant, attraction. It takes between 1 to 1 and1/2 hours to switch parks.
      Is it really a good idea to go back and forth to Animal Kingdom on 3 different days? That’s 6 hours to 7 1/2 hours for 3 days of just going back and forth between AK and other parks.
      AK doesn’t have more than half a day of stuff to do for us. Everest, Tough to Be A Bug, a meal or two, maybe a show (they seem pretty old now), and maybe or not w the Safari. Everybody is pretty indifferent to it and the rest of this park.

      • Country Bear

        It sounds like the new system doesn’t support or encourage park hopping. The reviews I have read indicate that it is challenging to get any fast passes when you decide to hop to another park (and you can’t currently book a park hopping day with MyMagic plus bands). I personally don’t have an issue with that, for as CaptainAction said, it takes hours to hop parks at WDW and it’s a waste of time for one or two attractions. On our last visit we didn’t even get the park hopper option because we have never seen the logic in hopping, based on the current transportation system (we tried it once and that was 2 hours we’ll never get back). I personally think it’s a waste of money and time and perhaps Disney is now conceding that too.

      • steve76

        Country Bear, I actually interpret it differently. I don’t generally park-hop (except maybe to Epcot in the evening for dinner) but under the new system I might be more inclined to do so.

        Currently, I use FastPass as much as possible, collecting FastPasses throughout the day and using them when I can. If I spend the morning in MK, then I would collect a number of FastPasses, many of which would be for the afternoon. If I then hop to Epcot after lunch, I a) cannot use many of the FastPasses collected, and b) cannot get FastPasses at Epcot because they have mostly run out. So the FastPass system encourages me to stick to one park per day.

        Under the new system, I can book my FastPasses for Epcot in the afternoon or evening, and go to Magic Kingdom in the morning to take advantage of short lines first thing – safe in the knowledge that I am not sacrificing any FastPass opportunities.

  • Fukai

    Really? Who gives a crap if Disney knows where you are at all times while you’re in the theme parks? What difference does that make? If you’re doing something naughty then I suppose you have something to worry about, but who else cares and why? You go on rides, see shows, walk, shop, and eat. There you go. That’s what Disney will find out.

    I HATE the idea of Fastpass +, but aside from that I think the magic bands will make life easier.

  • danyoung

    We live in a world where someone gets to see us naked every time we go through an airport scanner, so this type of info being available to Disney just doesn’t bother me in the least. And it makes total sense that the Magic Bands have 2 levels of signal recognition. If they didn’t have the up close mode, then people passing by a register would be picked up by the scanner. I know, there’s also the 4-digit password, but if it were matched up with the wrong MB it would just fail, and the customer would have to repeatedly try to match code to MB. So that mode has to be close up. I guess the surprise is that there is another long distance mode. And it’s really not that big of a surprise, as Disney has been touting the possibility of interaction with attractions, characters, etc. for quite a while.

    While several folks have expressed their concern for what Disney MIGHT be doing with all this data, there is absolutely no indication that Disney IS doing anything with the info other than exactly what they’ve said. It’s a big ol’ public company, and any nefarious action on their part would almost definitely become public knowledge very shortly. Heck, there’s been the possibility of fraud ever since credit and debit cards came into being. As long as there’s a way of policing the vendors, I don’t have any problem with Disney knowing how many times I go on Pirates. Just as long as they can’t see me naked while I’m doing it . . . . .

    • DobbysCloset

      It would be Small World I would be worried about, seeing me naked. Those dolls are far too happy about SOMETHING.

      Time to re-watch “Westworld.”

  • AmandasDad

    Frankly, it pretty much says they work up close and from a distance on the Disney web site. There is an alternative to the bands. They have a card that cannot be read from a distance but can be used for FP+ and purchases.

    Anyone else annoyed that if you use your MB to get into the park, you cannot use the regular old paper FPs? That is what I am bummed about.

  • Not My Real Name

    Watch “Minority Report” and see what happens to Tom Cruise every time he enters a public space and is assaulted by ads, ads and more ads in the form of computer voices that have ID’d him from his retinas.That’s what it’s coming to.

    Check out “Airplane II” and see the scene where a security scanner reveals every passenger in full-color nudity from the waist to the shoulders. This was in 1982! We were warned….

  • bayouguy

    Let the system fail and implode. Going to Disneyland or WDW ought not be a occurance of money making beyond the “normal” means. No, it’s not the government doing the snooping but nonetheless, it’s still a “Big Brother” system of intrusion, something designed by Disney for that purpose.

  • sean317

    Your picture is taken the 1st day you arrive at the park before you enter (at least mine was) & I am positive there are cameras everywhere in the parks! You should not come to Disneyland if you do not want people to see you. Fraud would be the main issue for me with this.

  • donsullivan

    I don’t understand the faugh outrage (and click-bait titles) as if the tracking capability of the bands is new information. Disney has stated publicly many times over the last year that the Magicband contains both RFID (short-range) and Bluetooth (long range) radios. The RFID was intended for room key, admissions, payments, etc.. and the Bluetooth was for more environmental things like guest tracking within the parks or on-ride experiences where you would not be able to immediately touch something with the band.

    This has been covered many times over, it was even described by Tom Staggs in his presentation at All Things D earlier in the year.

  • gmaletic

    They can track us. I don’t get why I should care.

    So they know what I like to ride. That’s information I’m happy to share with them.

    Given the turnstiles and cameras already in the park, they had this ability anyway.