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Thursday, May 04, 2017

A Kingdom of Sensorveillance

Imagine a world of all seeing technology.  RFID bands track you from point to point.  Cameras surveil you everywhere you go.  Your movements, actions, what you eat, what you wear, who you are with are all monitored in real time and with the purpose to understand and predict your every need.

This dystopian future exists, is expensive, and is called Walt Disney World.  I know, because I became a subject in this totalizing surveillance experiment last month.

It begins with a "magic band" that becomes your virtual wallet, hotel key, identification, and location tracker.  Hold the band up to various sensors and it reveals your whereabouts, interests, and needs.  It continues with fingerprint scanners that all people (including my kids) use to get into the park.  The guy at the front gate swore that Disney did not actually collect fingerprints, but only measured the circumference of the finger (hmmmmm).  It continues with a Smartphone App with precise GPS technology to show you the nearest bathroom or ice cream stand (both the subject of emergencies at different points of the day).  And, it ends with a cloud of photos marking your joy and happiness at every moment along the way.

If a real kingdom wanted to practice panvasive surveillance, the magic kingdom would be a good place to start.  And, as someone who studies the growth of surveillance technologies, the rise of sensor surveillance (sensorveillance), and “the Internet of Things,” it was an eye-opening experience.

Two things stand out just on a personal level:

First, as much as I know my smartphone spies on me, and that my actions are tracked by smart FitBits, convenience cards, and my car’s OnStar device, I still fool myself that because these things are not connected, I am not under total surveillance.  Yet, the ease of use of the magic band was really amazing.  Not having to carry a wallet, identification, or keys was liberating.  Not having to see the price of anything (especially at overpriced food venues) was freeing.  Not worrying about the hassle of entry or exits or even taking your own photos made the whole thing seamless.  And, that of course is the goal – to have one seamless connecting point with the consumer world.  It was so easy that you wanted more of it. 

Second, the socialization of surveillance technologies for children was frightening.  My children did not blink a second before offering up their fingerprints to the friendly Mouse.  Whether or not the company retained the prints, the idea that they had machines set up to collect them (and thus played into society’s need for “security theater”) was striking.  I can only imagine the positive association in my kid’s minds with Disney and surveillance. 

Tomorrow and Tommorrowland are not too far apart.  We are building an infrastructure of self-surveillance capabilities that will allow a seamless consumer company to offer us incredible new conveniences.  We are beginning to embrace the seduction of convenience and pass on that message to our children.   

And, here is where the law professor/civil liberties part of me took over.  I tried to “resist.”  I tried to ask for the privacy policies about retention of fingerprints.  I got no good answers except, it is on the web.  And it is… in good corporate speak about privacy and children’s privacy.  I tried to not give a fingerprint, and the kind man at the gate said “No problem,” and then took my photograph before I could explain about my concerns of being in Disney’s biometric database.  And, I tried to see if I could not use the band, but it didn’t really matter because my kids were certainly not going to give up their specially chosen Disney bands and so the family was being tracked all the same.  So, like a failed resistance fighter I gave in to the all-powerful Kingdom and its iconic animated rulers and just enjoyed my time.  But, someday this fantasyland might not be be so fun and we will only have ourselves to blame. 

Posted by Andrew Guthrie Ferguson on May 4, 2017 at 10:00 AM | Permalink


The Constitution of the State of Washington includes a "right to privacy" clause (Article 1, Section 7). When citizens of the Evergreen State visit Disney World
does the surveillance conducted at "The Happiest Place on Earth" violate that right?

Posted by: Paul | May 8, 2017 3:22:49 PM

It sounds like this is a cost/benefit question in which most customers (and perhaps you, as well) perceive the benefits of monitoring as exceeding its costs.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | May 4, 2017 6:52:03 PM

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