Vacationing With RFID Chips

by on June 14, 2006

Vacation? What vacation? There’s WiFi in my Frankfurt rental apartment! I’m here attending the opening round of the World Cup, Adam’s most-loved sport, and tickets to the games have RFID chips embedded in them.

Last week, the Department of Homeland Security’s Data Privacy and Integrity Advisory Committee met in San Francisco. The most interesting thing about the meeting to me was leaving without showing ID at the airport. But one of the items of highest interest at the meeting was a draft report put forward by a subcommittee of the DPIAC suggesting that RFID should be disfavored for human tracking.

It was subject to some exaggerated reporting, and some RFID industry folks went into a bit of a tizzy. Penny-wise-and-pound-foolishly, they seem to believe that they should preserve the multi-million-chip market for RFID in identification cards, even though doing so frustrates and delays the development of a market for RFID on the packaging of consumer goods, which easily could reach tens or hundreds of billions of tags.

In a near analogy to tagging identification documents, the World Cup has issued a couple million tickets with RFID chips embedded in them. Getting RFID readers into German stadiums makes it likely that club teams will use RFID chips in their tickets henceforth. Kudos to the wily Phillips Corporation for using its World Cup sponsorship to create an installed base of RFID-using venues.

So let’s look at how mighty RFID adds value to the soccer ticket – and what part of any value goes to fans, organizers, or RFID manufacturers and integrators (after the jump).

Let’s start with an assessment of what a soccer ticket does: Tickets help create orderly markets for licenses to attend events. In general, the bearer of a ticket is deemed to own a license and showing the ticket or handing it over proves that the attendee owns the license and can enter the venue. Printing section and seat numbers on the ticket also contributes to order by telling people where to sit or stand.

Where does RFID add value in this context? Let’s take the benefits of ticketing in reverse order:

RFID adds nothing to the process of finding one’s seat. The section and seat data is printed on the ticket and collected visually.

What about entry to the venue? This is where RFID could have an impact. An RFID-chipped ticket could speed entry, communicating by radio that the approaching person has a genuine ticket and should be admitted.

But there’s a problem. If you read the tickets over any distance, no particular entry point knows which particular person is bearing a genuine document. You have to check the ticket in the hand of a person to determine if that person should be admitted. So, at the venue in Gelsenkirchen (where the U.S. was trounced by the Czech Republic – ugh), an attendant stands at each entry point assisting attendees with sliding their tickets into a reader.

This is as time-consuming as transmitting ticket data visually, using a contact chip, or by laser card. At RFK stadium in Washington, D.C., tickets for D.C. United games have a bar code and attendants with handheld scanners check ticketholders in. My comparison of the process at Gelsenkirchen’s AufSchalke Arena and RFK suggests that handheld bar-code scanners are probably a little faster.

So, as far as administering entry to games, RFID-chipped tickets offer nothing to fans, nothing to organizers, but they do transfer some wealth from the former to RFID manufacturers and integrators.

Resorting again to personal experience, I know that RFID can give people quick entry to controlled areas. The Washington D.C. metro system uses an RFID-chipped “SmarTrip” card that obviously gives people faster entry than when they must stop and insert a pass into a reader. With D.C.-Metro-like readers and barriers, the World Cup’s organizers could get (and give fans) the benefits of RFID by offering quicker access to the stadium. They could cut down the number of attendants by half, at least.

So why would organizers adopt RFID technology but not use it to get the value of faster access to games for ticket-holders? Perhaps they’re pursuing a different goal.

As we noted above, a ticket is a device for administering orderly markets in event licenses. Ticket bearers own licenses and get to attend. But the organizers of the World Cup seem to have a pretty clear agenda to prevent an orderly secondary market for tickets. Once they sell them, they want only the direct purchaser to go to the game. FIFA, the organizing body of world soccer, consistently fights buying and selling of tickets in aftermarkets.

The reason is not clear. By one (English) calculation, FIFA leaves as much as £2 billion on the table by not charging market rates for tickets. Maybe it’s to prevent fans of rival teams from sitting next to each other, but more likely it’s because of the huge marketing revenues maintained by portraying World Cup soccer as a “people’s game” rather than an entertainment for the wealthy and powerful. If tickets were priced (or openly bought and sold) at market rates, the masses would realize that actually attending a game is not within their reach. On game day, they would be less eager to sit in front of the TV and revel in the drama, knowing they could never afford to watch a game in person. FIFA is free to structure its ticket sales this way if it wants to – if fans will accept it.

Where does RFID fit into all this? FIFA has already instituted a policy of printing ticket-buyers’ names on tickets. They have warned at past Cups and this one that ticket holders’ identities will be checked against the names printed on tickets and that tickets held by non-purchasers are subject to cancellation. The RFID chips in this tournament’s tickets do not have any personal information, but they point to data collected at the time of sale indicating who is entitled to use the ticket. So the RFID chip is a tool to frustrate secondary markets in tickets, probably in pursuit of a marketing advantage for the World Cup and its governing body FIFA.

The winners in this use of RFID? It seems to be event organizers who protect their marketing advantage by diminishing the value of tickets to purchasers. Storing ticket-buyer data on the ticket (or connecting it to the ticket with a pointer to a database) seeks to convert the ticket from a bearer document into a personal license. This transfers value from fans to organizers by suppressing secondary markets for tickets.

But, is it RFID that actually does this? No.

Given the FIFA policy, any digital storage of ticket-buyer information would effect the same transfer value to the organizers. Unless they chose RFID because it is more intimidatingly high-tech, FIFA seems to be enamored with the technology, not seeing that they could achieve the same ends more quickly and cheaply with lower-tech methods like bar codes.

Like the promoters of RFID for identification cards, FIFA seems to be in love with the technology rather than focused on rationally connecting means to ends.

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