Ski pass tracking Is it Big Brother on the slopes or a fun Facebook app

Date: Oct. 21st, 2010
Contact: Bruce Finely Denver Post Phone: 303-954-1700

Going skiing? You may be tracked.  Resort operators have implanted tiny radio-frequency computer chips with antennas in lift tickets and season passes. They're installing more scanners on mountain slopes.

The scanners automatically track skiers and snowboarders, recording their whereabouts in company databases.

Some skiers and privacy advocates object.

"Any kind of technology that creates an automatic tracking system by default violates people's general expectation — not just of privacy but of the world," said Lee Tien, senior staff attorney for the pro-privacy Electronic Frontier Foundation. "You are not expecting to be tracked."

A Colorado ski instructor started producing aluminum "ski-pass defender" sheaths that block radio signals and is selling them at the rate of eight sheaths a day.

Federal trade regulators for years have been tracking the spread of radio-frequency technology, which increasingly is embedded in credit cards, passports, items for sale in malls and experimental driver's licenses. But the government has not set limits.

Now Vail Resorts Inc. is poised to deploy EpicMix, the most extensive on-mountain tracking system in Colorado.

All 89 lifts at Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone and Vail, and at Heavenly in California, will be outfitted with scanner portals able to read the chips as skiers and snowboarders pass through, Vail Resorts spokeswoman Kelly Ladyga said.

Vail passes carry 900-megahertz tracking devices, which industry publications indicate can enable longer-distance reading, rather than the 13.56-MHz tags considered standard for ski passes.

Vail officials tout EpicMix as "the key to unlocking a new mountain experience," a capturing-and-sharing grid to revolutionize the way customers "interface" with the mountain.

Vail invested an undisclosed portion of its $75 million capital-improvement budget to develop the system.

Features include the ability to set up accounts that use the chip data to track how many vertical feet and days have been skied.

The EpicMix program also allows users to download software applications for mobile devices, such as the iPhone, that enable the automatic display of their whereabouts on the mountain at social-networking websites such as Facebook.

"It's a competitive differentiation which we hope translates into more people skiing at our resorts — and skiing more often," Ladyga said.


"There is no privacy issue," she said, noting that competitive runners are tracked in some races using similar methods.

Skiers and snowboarders who don't want to be tracked can remove RFID chips from their tickets or passes using a hole-puncher, she said. If a day skier asks for a paper ticket with no tracking device, those can be issued, she said.

Any information the scanners acquire is to be kept separate from personal data — credit-card numbers, phone numbers, addresses — that are stored in resort point-of-sale databases.

Some Vail employees would have access. Vail officials haven't decided how long they will keep the data, and they did not rule out using tracking data in legal disputes.

"Any information appropriately requested under court order would be made available," Ladyga said.

"We're only getting the lifts they are riding. It is information that would allow us to enhance their experience on the mountain," she said. "If they choose to opt in to receive messages, we can let them know what runs have been groomed, where the lift lines are shortest, lunch specials at on-mountain dining facilities, any sort of ski-school specials — promotional messages that they would be interested in receiving while they are on the mountain."

Winter Park/Mary Jane, Copper Mountain and Steamboat have not deployed tracking technology.

Telluride operators are developing a tracking program, along with mobile and social-network applications, but also are weighing privacy concerns, spokesman Tom Watkinson said.

"We definitely don't want to jump the gun," he said. "We don't want to put somebody in a situation they don't feel comfortable with as far as privacy."

Aspen ski-area tickets contain tracking devices, and executives this year talked about expanding their system to leverage social media, said Dave Bellack, chairman of the Colorado Ski Country trade group and senior vice president of the Aspen Skiing Co.

"At this time, we think we would probably select solitude over connectivity," Bellack said. ". . . We're not persuaded that every person wants to be linked to everybody else while they are skiing."

Meanwhile, Breckenridge resident Jon Lawson, 42, a 17-year-veteran ski instructor, has sold 384 of the aluminum-backed "ski-pass defender" sheaths he developed to thwart tracking. He charges $15.95 each, he said, and this week ordered another 500.

"I just want the choice to not give them any more marketing data than they need," Lawson said.

Ed Bassett, 48, of Denver bought a pass defender because he thinks the tracking violates his privacy.

"For me, skiing is a recreational activity. It is a personal activity. There is nothing particularly controversial about it, where I choose to go. It's not that it is sensitive behavior," Bassett said. ". . . I want to keep that to myself."

Tien, at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, contends that companies, not customers, should bear the burden.

"Why is it that someone should have to spend $16 to not be tracked?" Tien asked.

Skier-tracking scanners appear relatively benign because they apparently do not collect credit-card and other personal information, said Julie Mayer, a Federal Trade Commission attorney.

Still, she said, "there might be concerns that (buying aluminum shields) might not be an easy way for consumers to turn off and not be tracked."

Read more: Ski-pass tracking: Is it Big Brother on the slopes, or a fun Facebook app? - The Denver Post