Disney CEO Delivers Epic Smackdown to Dumb Congressman Over Privacy Concerns

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Jan. 31 2013 11:50 AM

Mickey Mouse Is Watching You

In a tussle over privacy, Disney’s CEO delivers an epic smackdown to a dumb member of Congress.

Could Disney's "MagicBands" violate visitors' privacy?
Could Disney's "MagicBands" violate visitors' privacy?

Photo by Kent Phillips/Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney World Resort.

Imagine you’re a 4-year-old girl. You’re strolling through Disney World when Cinderella—whom you have worshiped from afar for most of your young life—sashays up to you, greets you by name, and wishes you a happy birthday.

If this happened to me when I was a preschooler, it’s possible that I would have literally peed my pants with delight.

Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., however, isn’t nearly as tickled by the prospect of ladies in blonde wigs and sparkly blue dresses knowing little girls’ names. The co-chairman of the Bipartisan Congressional Privacy Caucus got his boxers in a bunch last week after reading a New York Times story outlining this nightmare birthday scenario and other personalized services soon to be made possible, thanks to technology. Disney is poised to introduce RFID-enabled wristbands that will collect data about visitors’ activities while allowing park and hotel access, offering access to rides without waiting in line, and making souvenir purchases easier.

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Markey dashed off a letter to Disney CEO Bob Iger, declaring, “Although kids should have the chance to meet Mickey Mouse, this memorable meeting should not be manipulated through surreptitious use of a child’s personal information.”

The gentleman from Massachusetts is part of an ever-growing chorus of worrywarts in positions of power who have trouble distinguishing between real invasions of Americans’ constitutionally protected right to privacy and consensual data collection by service providers.

U.S. law enforcement agencies made 1.5 million requests for user data from cellphone companies in 2011, virtually always without giving customers any notification before or after the fact. Secret courts authorize wiretaps in intelligence investigations without any real congressional oversight or transparency. Thwarting any of these actions at any level is cause for arrest, fines, and imprisonment.

Those are invasions of privacy. And to his credit, Markey has objected to such practices as well. But here’s the problem: He uses the same language to complain about secret wiretaps and Disney’s RFID wristbands.

Markey’s rhetoric implies that people who buy airline tickets to fly their families to Orlando, shell out for princess-themed hotel rooms, fork over large sums to gain access to an autonomous private domain surveilled from stem to stern by closed circuit cameras, and drop more cash on mouse ears and other assorted gougeables using easily traceable credit cards should not have their encounter within a grown man in a mouse suit sullied by marketers with access to customer data. This situation, he suggests, would be equivalent to those same people being under secret police surveillance in their own homes.

Wrong. Here’s the difference: Every single one of the transactions with Disney described above is voluntary. It would indeed be worthy of congressional inquiry if Disney marketers were running around the country shoveling entire families onto airplanes at gunpoint or threatening them with imprisonment for refusing to disclose their preference for It’s a Small World After All over the Hall of Presidents.

But Markey is worried about the children: “Do you plan to target advertisements at kids 12 and under?” he demands in his public letter to Disney. “Does you company plan to market, sell, or otherwise disclose personal information or profiled about its guests to other companies?” he wonders. And “[i]f a guest chooses not to use MagicBand, what disadvantages, if any, will that guest experience while visiting a Disney park (i.e. longer wait times for attractions, etc.)”