Thanks to an inventive pilot marketing program, some Mini owners will be greeted by name when they drive by electronic billboards in New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Miami.
Mini calls the project “Motorby” and has offered more than 4,500 drivers the opportunity to participate in the program. While the campaign might please some Mini fans, the project relies on radio frequency identification technology that is becoming controversial for the issues it raises with regard to consumer privacy.
After completing a questionnaire online — including entering your name, occupation, birth date and answering questions like, “What adjective best describes how you motor?” — each participant who opts in will receive a key fob with an RFID chip that can be detected by Mini’s electronic billboards, which in turn convey personalized messages to the driver as he or she passes by.
For example, if the driver happens to be a lawyer, the sign may read, “Moving at the Speed of Justice,” along with the driver’s name. The content is only generated if the owner is carrying the key fob, which can be detected by the system from up to 500 feet away. Mini claims that its Motorby campaign is the first use of RFID technology as a communication device.
Though quirky messages may amuse some drivers, the technology powering this program puts others on edge. RFID chips, presently found in some passports, credit cards, tollbooths and ski lifts, have become a hot button for consumer privacy advocates. RFID technology could possibly be used to track an individual’s whereabouts, or steal their personal data, said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Environmental Privacy Information Center (EPIC).
“It’s a clever marketing gimmick that involves several privacy issues,” he said in regard to the Mini Motorby campaign. The notion of transmitting personal information over radio waves presents opportunities not only for identity theft but for other invasions of privacy, such as those involving a government agency, he said. “People really need that ‘off’ switch” to control what information is getting transmitted and to whom, Rotenberg said.
Mini representatives were not available for comment by publication time. But in Motorby press materials the company says it uses cryptographic protocols to ensure maximum security and that no confidential information is held in the key fob itself. All communication is established and maintained through a central server, which coordinates with customer nodes on the outdoor boards, Mini said in the press release.
Melissa Ngo, director of identification and surveillance at EPIC, said that RFID technology perpetuates a lack of control of personal information and invasions of privacy. She gave an example of a domestic-abuse victim who tried to flee her physically abusive husband. He was able to track her down with information from the RFID-based E-ZPass she kept in her car. The next time she fled, she made sure to deactivate her E-ZPass account but forgot the physical E-ZPass RFID device in her car; even though the account was deactivated, her husband was able to track her down once again, Ngo said. “With RFID, someone has the ability to know who you are and where you are without you having control,” she said.
The initial Mini Motorby trial run will last several months, with electronic billboards on I-294 in Chicago; the Palmetto Expressway in Miami; at the Lincoln Tunnel in Manhattan; and in San Francisco on the I-80 Skyway.