The O. Zone

Big Brother blocker 'flying off the shelves'

By David O. Williams
Real AspenNovember 16, 2010
Vail's EpicMix application allows skiers and riders to track where and how much they skied. But it's raising privacy concerns.

It’s an only-in-Colorado kind of story. Where else do people freak about whether Big Brother is watching them … on the ski slopes?

Radio frequency identity (RFID) chips embedded in season ski passes allow snow riders to effortlessly glide through lift lines without fumbling under multiple layers of long underwear to dig out a pass so a disgruntled lift operator can scan it and allow them up the mountain.

That would seem like a good thing for both the ski area and the snow rider – the all-encompassing term for both skiers and snowboarders – but the snow sports industry has now taken RFID technology a step further by tying in credit card information for on-mountain purchases and linking up to social networking and terrain tracking apps.

Vail Resorts’ new EpicMix app, for instance, allows snow riders to create an account and keep track of where and how much they’ve skied. They can then share that info with friends on Facebook or other social networking platforms.

According to ESPN, identity theft expert, former Vail Resorts employee and current Loveland ski instructor Jon Lawson says that’s a problem. He’s worried about hacking, identity theft and ski companies using the information in workers’ comp or guest liability cases.

Lawson has developed a simple way to block the RFID called “Ski Pass Defender” that he’s says is flying off the shelves along with the snow flying in the high country and more resorts coming online every day.

Consumers of the $15.95 aluminum sheaths that slide down around a ski pass and block radio waves are motivated by a number of reasons, Lawson told ESPN. “Some are anti-corporate. Others — like me — say, ‘I choose not to give that information, I choose not to be tracked.’”

Playing hooky on a powder day, for instance, could be a compromising issue if a boss somehow hacks your account. A paranoid proposition, for sure, but stranger things have happened.

RFID backers, of course, say the information a hacker would receive is useless, just a string of numbers, and Vail Resorts representatives insist the RFID chip number is kept in a separate database, secure from a guest’s personal information in another database.

Lawson says he was let go from Vail Resorts’ Breckenridge ski area after refusing to shut down his Ski Pass Defender. Now he’s laboring at smaller, less corporate Loveland and selling his foil product for a sizeable sum. Seriously, only in Colorado.

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