Breckenridge inventor wary of ski-pass technology
September 30, 2010
BRECKENRIDGE – Some skiers and riders appear to agree with Jonathan Lawson’s mission to protect personal information, as about 175 of Lawson’s new product – the Ski Pass Defender – have been sold since he made it available for online purchase approximately two weeks ago.
Ski Pass Defender is designed to prevent any ski pass containing an “RFID” chip from being scanned, read or skimmed until the user is ready to get on the lift. It’s a sleeve that blocks the chip from emitting personal information and tracking a skier’s or rider’s movements as he or she roams the slopes.
RFID stands for radio frequency ID card. It is an emerging technology recently used in credit cards. It stores information that can be read electronically through a bar code, without using a magnetic strip. Lawson – a Breckenridge inventor and former ski instructor with Breckenridge Resort with a history in the digital privacy field – said the RFID method is generally a more cost-effective method of storing and using information and may become the new ski industry standard for lift passes.
Vail Resorts has used RFID in its season passes for several years. Recently, it trumpeted the release of “EpicMix,” which, according to a press release, allows a user to opt in and use the device’s tracking abilities to record vertical feet, days on the mountain and more – and share that information via social networking. It can also help located missing children and persons from a group along with several other digital perks. Lawson said VR is among hundreds of resorts around the world implementing RFID technology in this manner.
RFID also provides quicker, easier, more convenient access to the lifts, as the radio frequency can be scanned without direct contact with the pass. There’s an added data collection bonus for the resort company, where the data can be used in targeted marketing and profit/loss considerations, Lawson said.
“I don’t have anything against ski corporations using these technologies, and their ‘initiatives’ to grow revenues and decrease expenses,” Lawson writes in his blog. “But I think there are enough people who prefer NOT to be watched and cataloged by a big brother to warrant $16 of protection.”
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Adam Hirshberg, who purchased a Defender device, is one of those people. He agrees data collection can be useful to resorts, but prefers to not be part of their statistics. In particular, Hirshberg chooses to use Ski Pass Defender for fear of how the information could be used in the future.
In a previous press release, Vail Resorts said users can deactivate the tracking technology by removing it from their pass (the pass would then be scanned off the bar code). That’s why Lawson doesn’t see Ski Pass Defender as a competitor to the EpicMix initiative.
Instead, he claims his Ski Pass Defender is another way users can choose to opt out of the system “without mutilating their pass.”
It “gives the skier or rider the freedom to choose to be tracked or untracked from day to day or run to run,” Lawson writes in his blog.
(Other than to refer to their previous press release, Vail Resorts officials did not respond to requests to comment on the Ski Pass Defender for this story by press time.)
Lawson has been following how resorts have been using RFID technology for marketing data collection, operations information and more. He’s fearful about where the industry could take the technology, such as making speed systems or vertical feet tracking available to attorneys in the case of an accident. Or, using speed information to raise pass prices for “reckless” skiers or riders, which can then mitigate corporate risks and lower insurance premiums.
He noted that Vail Resorts currently keeps a user’s financial information separate from the RFID information, and he hopes they keep it that way. However, according to Lawson’s blog, resorts such as Aspen have already used RFID for “stored value,” which allows a user to store money for purchases. There’s no added protection of a magnetic strip, Lawson said, adding that he predicts the ski industry as a whole will move in the same direction to make purchases easier. He raises questions about how secure such system are from hackers.
Lawson believes it’s harmful to have personal information so readily available – regardless of what kind of information it is.
“(RFID) lets lots of information out that doesn’t need to be out,” he said.
For example, he said, an $8 card reader available on eBay can simply scan a credit card – it can be in a person’s back pocket – and provide access to enough credit card information to be able to go online and shop. Similar technology could be used to scan a ski pass with RFID technology, making it vulnerable to cloning, or duplication for another’s use. Skipassdefender.com has a video about how it’s done – and how easily.
“We shall be told that the systems are ‘encrypted and safe’, there will be many who blindly believe this. However, this will invite hackers and thieves to ‘go where the money is.’ This is not paranoia, this is reality,” he wrote in the blog.
For now, Lawson is hanging a lot of hope on the success of Ski Pass Defender. He recently left his job at a Breckenridge ski instructor when he said he was given an ultimatum by resort officials to stop selling the Defender or leave the ski area’s employ.
SDN reporter Janice Kurbjun can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or (970) 668-4630.