The vending machine is watching…



It’s no secret I love technology. Technology enables us to engage in some pretty cool experiences as situations can be personalized to our unique taste. Everywhere we go we are sharing information about ourselves. We leak metadata. In short, metadata is data about data.


Let’s take a simple phone call. If Jim calls John, that’s a fairly simple interaction. We typically don’t think much can be discerned beyond the high level details as we’d be swimming in data. What lies under the covers of those simple interactions?  In the call between Jim and John, there is a bunch of meta data about that conversation that may be additionally interesting:

  • When did Jim call John?
  • How long was the call?
  • What was the length of that call?
  • What time did Jim call?
  • How long was the phone call?
  • How many times does Jim call John?
  • Did he call a home, mobile, or office number?
  • Where did he call from: home, work, mobile?
  • Who did Jim call before or after he called John?
  • And so on…He

If someone wants to understand how Jim is connected to John, the phone call’s metadata is equally important. It’s often easier to harvest than the data itself. The paradigm extends out to many interactions we have online.

Disney is exceptionally good at personalizing experiences. On checkin you get your armband.  It unlocks your room, can be used for purchases, and admission for theme parks. Your interaction with the park begins using that armband. It comes in a giant box and even personalized for you on the inside.

The next day, I had lunch at the Pepper Market, a cafeteria style eatery. On checkout I added a coke to my order. I thought it was a bit steep at $3 for a fountain drink, but hey it’s Disney. Everything costs more here. When I filled the cup, I put the cup under the spigot and pressed the dispense button. The display said to put the cup on the shelf below. Sure, no worries.


As the drink started filling the display let me know I had three more refills left during my maximum three hour stay at the restaurant.


I was curious and looked on the bottom of my cup. I saw this hitchhiker:

Yes, each and every cup has an RFID signature on it. They track what you drink, how much you drink, and when you drink it. The whole thing just felt really big brotherish to me. Plus I wonder if it’s even good business sense. The technology for the system likely wasn’t cheap. Adding the RFID chips to each and every cup isn’t inexpensive. And I honestly wonder how many people consume so much soft drink that it actually costs Disney more than three dollars. A 2 liter Coke typically is under three dollars at the supermarket and that’s a much higher cost per ounce than Disney is paying.

I really wonder what the motivation here. Is it cost control? Is it learning more about their customer’s habits? Will the drink I drink most often suddenly show up in my guestroom for a premium price?

When we browse the web we become conditioned that we are tracked. When video camera is recording indoors, we see signs noting closed circuit television. This interaction just felt sneaky. I didn’t expect an RFID chip in my Coke.  Do I really care that Disney knows what beverage I pair with my lunch? Not really. I’m not exactly unique in that respect. Being audited in areas I’m expecting not to be leaves a sour taste in my mouth. It makes me wonder what other things they collect about me.

This is one of those situations that I think the use of technology doesn’t justify the benefit. Sure, they will curb the random customer who drinks six Cokes in a sitting. They will also get a better sense for the amounts and types of beverages their customers drink.

There’s also a clear production cost for adding the chip to each and every cup. I’d venture to say about half the customers will find the RFID chip like I did. Maybe they won’t care. I do think this is one of those situations where Disney is being a bit too big brother is in an area that really doesn’t matter. They likely have the data anyway. Most restaurants do. They just collect it in much more obvious ways.

What do you think? Am I being a privacy freak? Let me know in the comments.


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