Activist Group Asks Comic Cons to "Protect Our Secret Identities"

Following the discovery that New York Comic Con accessed attendees' social media accounts without their knowledge, the Electronic Frontier Foundation asks that cons respect fans' privacy in the future.

Attendees of last week's New York Comic Con might have been surprised to see messages appearing on their social media streams that they hadn't actually written. It turned out that the tweets and Facebook status updates rhapsodizing about how great the show was ("Can't. handle. the. awesome" went one) were automatically generated and sent by a system once the attendees' RFID chip within their convention badge registered that they had arrived at the show, which was a surprise to those who didn't know that was even a possibility -- which is to say, all of them.

Within a day, ReedPOP, the organization behind NYCC, had turned off the automated messages and released a statement apologizing for being "too enthusiastic in our messaging" and "any perceived overstep." That wasn't enough for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, however, which has responded with an open letter to all the comic cons, asking them to "protect our secret identities."

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"Being too enthusiastic is only one issue. Regardless of the messaging, ghost tweets are at best tacky, at worst creepy, and always unnecessary," the letter -- written by the organization's Dave Maass -- reads. "Even more problematic is that if even journalists such as Jill Scharr, for whom words are their livelihood, were unaware they were granting that kind of authority over their online personas, then NYCC did not do an adequate job of making its intentions clear. As a result, NYCC has tainted the safe spaces that these gatherings are to many a geek."

Even more troubling than hijacked social media accounts, Maass argues, is the potential for abuse of the RFID chips in the NYCC badges. "How many fans would steer clear of controversial graphic novels or manga tables (or even cheesy guilty childhood pleasures) if they knew someone was creating a log of every booth where they lingered? Think about the young LGBT artists who have yet to come out to their parents, but are finding the courage through sitting in the back of a queer comics panel. Would they still enter if they had to scan their personally identifiable badges at the door?"

The response to NYCC and ReedPOP's use of new technology has proven that a lot of work remains to be done not only in terms of exploring the potential for use, but also fine-tuning the way in which convention attendees are made aware of what the technology is actually being used for. As Maass writes, "You can still have a convention at the cutting edge of culture, without bleeding your attendees' privacy away." Just ask yourself: What Would Batman Do? (Actually, maybe not.)