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The stack of free headphones looked innocent enough.
My gym, the New York Sports Club on West 73rd Street, began giving them away in January to use with new E-Zone music and video consoles installed on cardio exercise machines. Fill out a form, the attendant said, and a headset is yours.
At the time, I didnt question why the forms asked for personal data, including my name, address, phone number, e-mail, occupation, income, number of pets and children, and dozens of personal preferencesall just to give me a cheap pair of headphones.
Only later did I discover the headset was a Trojan horse, hiding an instrument of surveillance. Through an embedded microchip, the headset permits E-Zone Networks and New York Sports Clubs to quietly track the personal habits of gym members, many of whom may not realize they're contributing to their own electronic dossiers.
"The thing that's wrong about this is the deception," says Steve Jordan, a photographer who watches E-Zone when he works out, but had no idea E-Zone was watching him. "If they had been up-front about it, most of the people at the club probably wouldn't care. But when they tried to hide it, they made a serious mistake."
E-Zone Networks' CEO, Robert McKenzie, defends his company, saying it uses data collected from gym members only to tailor advertising to individual viewers. Those commercials, McKenzie says, allow E-Zone to serve up entertainment free of charge. "Advertisements, unfortunately, are a fact of life in terms of the way we've built the network," he says. "In order to provide this personalized, compelling, one-on-one, freedom-of-choice content, we require advertisers to help cover the cost of doing it."
The company carries a mix of sponsored music and video-on-demand channels. It also offers access to broadcast and cable fare, as well as training and education videos made by E-Zone. To view programming, members plug the headsets into consoles and receive messages on-screen that confirm they're "logging on." Before selecting entertainment, they must watch four 30-second commercials, which are stored on servers at the gym.
The system is capable of monitoring a range of information, including the types of exercise machines and programming that a user favors. It can then tie that info to personal data volunteered on the headphone registration form. E-Zone creates a continually updated database stored on a central computer at corporate headquarters in Calgary. The company gives the statistics to advertisers, but CEO McKenzie says its contract with health club owners bars it from releasing customer names. "The information is extremely confidential," he says. "We have an extremely strong policy principle within the company."
Repeated requests for interviews with top executives of New York Sports Clubs' parent company, Town Sports International, were ignored. According to a promotional flyer Town Sports mailed members several weeks ago, the company tested E-Zone at three Manhattan gyms and plans to install it at all 100 of its clubs, including ones in Washington, D.C., Boston, and Philadelphia.
Though McKenzie says "the kids working the desk" should have let members know E-Zone builds their profiles, even a manager at my gym says she didn't realize the system was tracking people. Associate manager Lillian Maldonado says that when she was trained in using E-Zone, she got the impression the serial numbers were meant to help identify owners who had misplaced their headsets. Building electronic files on members "sounds very Big Brother," she says.
Gym members I talked to were just as surprised to learn the free headsets recorded their consumer choices. "You've got to be kidding," shouted one man in the locker room. "Well, I guess they gotta pay the bills," said another, shaking his head in resignation.
But in this networked world, where tracking personal preferences is commonplace, many people aren't concerned their activities are being watched. They just want to know when it's happening. Scott Fowler, a flight attendant and E-Zone user, says he doesn't mind that the headset monitors his preferences or that he has to watch commercials before using the system. "But I think they ought to let people know what they are doing," Fowler says. "That would be better."