The Sacramento Kings arena has eyes
One writer’s paranoid head trip into the high-tech marvel (and privacy rights nightmare) that is the Golden 1 Center
The silver-haired concessions man slides over the $13 beer and drops his voice in a conspiratorial tone.
“Vegas,” he says.
I squint and nod.
High in the upper reaches of Sacramento’s new Golden 1 Center, I’m taking a break from the Kings game to hatch theories with my new beer-slinging friend, Jet. We’ve got questions about this year’s Super Bowl. And we think a crooked desert city in Nevada has the answers. Patriots behind 28-3 in the second quarter? Please. There’s no way a team comes back from that on the world’s biggest stage without a little help. And Las Vegas stood to lose a lot of money that day.
Shuffling back to my seat, I reflect on the things so many know to be true but cannot prove. A faked moon landing. Area 51. Tapped phone lines in Trump Tower. In my line of work, there are few rewards to pursuing conspiracy theories.
A buzz in my pocket. I pull out my iPhone and fiddle with the app the voice from the arena sound system recommended we download for the chance to win a prize. The app zaps me again. It wants access to my location settings. It promises things in return—deals, values, a chance to be truly satisfied. My index finger shakes before dropping to oblige.
From rumors last summer of Facebook listening to users’ conversations to target them with ads to WikiLeaks’ recent dump of documents outlining how the CIA hacks straight into our phones to know what we’re doing at any moment, Americans are victims of Big Brother’s ceaseless assault on privacy. Yet few seem to care.
Since it opened in October of last year, the Golden 1 Center has drowned out gripes over its $255 million public subsidy with glowing reviews about its advanced design. Before it even opened, The New York Times called it the “most technologically advanced arena in the National Basketball Association.” More recently, Mobile Sports Report called it both “future-proof” and a “living blueprint.”
As I peer around at the blacks and the purples of the arena, the flashing, gargantuan scoreboard and the seated, sated fans, I can’t help but wonder at the cost. Somewhere far below my nosebleed seat, I can feel the arena’s thrumming central nervous system. I need to find it, to understand what information it’s collecting and for what purpose.
The sound system calls for noise and I obey. I need to fade into the crowd if I’m going to learn the truth. I open the app’s cowbell function, raise my phone to the air and tap the screen.
“Clang,” it knells. “Clang-clang.”Spy tech in your pocket
Rather than the fan checking into the arena, the Golden 1 Center checks into the fan. At least that's what Kings majority owner and chairman Vivek Ranadive said in a recent interview with Fast Company. I'm trying to decipher what that means as I navigate through the functions of the Kings + G1C app.
It’s Sunday, February 12, the end of an ominous weekend of mudslides, dam scares and Oroville evacuations. The Sacramento Kings are playing the New Orleans Pelicans at home.
Boos and jeers erupt from the crowd as the Kings app alerts me of a flagrant foul called on Pelicans rookie shooting guard Buddy Hield. He’ll be ejected for hitting hometown favorite DeMarcus “Boogie” Cousins in the groin. No one here knows it yet, but the Kings front office will deliver a similar blow to Cousins and the Sactown fanbase exactly one week later when it trades him to New Orleans in a five-player deal involving Hield.
This app is handy, and not just for real-time game stats and updates. I can order food and drinks from my seat, find restrooms with the shortest lines and pay for seat upgrades.
But the app’s demands are unsettling. The moment I open it, a box pops up.
“Turn On Location Services to Allow ’Kings + G1C’ to Determine Your Location,” it reads. It wants to use GPS, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi hot spots to know where I am.
The following week I reach out to Amul Kalia of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the nation’s leading nonprofit fighting for personal privacy and security in the digital age. A former Sacramentan himself, Kalia is interested to hear more about the Kings app. He stresses the importance of users knowing what they sign up for.
“You always want to be conscious of what kind of data [an app] has access to on your device,” he says. “It naturally lends itself to collecting a lot of information on you.”
On one hand, granting the app access to such information is necessary for the hyperpersonalized experience the Kings want to provide. Location and contacts will let fans see on a little map which of their friends are also in the arena. Bluetooth access allows the app to build a profile on visitors’ concessions and facility preferences. Over time the app will let fans know about deals and services it already knows they prefer.
On the other hand, I feel my sense of privacy wither with every swipe of my phone.
Consider the folks behind the app: Before his time as lead owner of the Kings, Ranadive made his first millions as founder and CEO of Tibco Software Inc. In a 2014 interview with Fortune, Ranadive described Tibco as “probably the most sophisticated and well-known and biggest big data company.”
“We are able to look at large, large quantities of data,” he told the magazine. “Not just old data, but new data, real-time data. We call that data ’fast data.’”
Tibco’s forte was taking this real-time data and putting it to use on global stock markets. And also on people.
Aside from its Wall Street work, Tibco is known for applying real-time big data to the gambling world, keeping high rollers happy and chips flying at casinos around the globe. The company built profiles on gamblers’ behaviors, focused marketing on the biggest spenders based on their habits, and maximized casino profits through rewards initiatives that kept folks gambling longer than they otherwise would.
Those same big data strategies have come to Sacramento.
Ranadive says the new arena has a “psychological router” and that his people “are using deep machine learning to allow a unique experience for each fan.” In the September 2016 unveiling of the Kings app, the team’s press office said it would use machine learning to provide hyperpersonalized experiences: “By using the app and coming to games, fans will be eligible for these tailored offers and rewards based on their activity within the app and at the arena.”
I take a break in my call with Kalia to stare down at my phone. What do the Kings know about me so far?
Kalia cautions against such wild-eyed responses, stressing that one can both appreciate the technology and be vigilant of his or her personal privacy.
“You’ll be tracked in the arena, but simultaneously your activities will be used to sort of guide their services,” he says.
Two days later, I’m on my couch exploring the app’s “Find Friends & Destinations” arena map, which is supposed to use GPS and Bluetooth technology to tell fans when their friends are in the arena and show them nearby attractions. I zoom out on the map to view the rest of downtown, and freeze when I see a flashing blue dot a mile south of the arena—right over my house.
They know where I live.Hot mics, cold chills
Silver and angular, the Golden 1 Center is the latest Great Hope in a long line of ill-informed downtown revitalization projects. I circle the structure—its industrial-chic style, absurd and absurdist art installations, sporadic shocks of foliage growing off the venue's walls—and watch the sun set behind Downtown Commons.
Is this place the surveillance hub I am coming to fear it is?
Despite my concerns, I still have the app in my phone, though I make sure to turn it off when not in use. I’ve recently learned some valuable information about NBA team apps from a class-action lawsuit put forth by one LaTisha Satchell against the Golden State Warriors.
Filed last September, Satchell’s suit charges the Warriors and their mobile app partner Signal360 have been unlawfully wiretapping private conversations through her phone’s microphone for their own marketing purposes. She claims they’re doing this to hundreds of thousands of Warriors fans with the app.
According to the complaint, the app can pinpoint your location by secretly turning on your phone’s microphone and “listening” for nearby audio beacons. Apparently this is all for marketing purposes.
Chillingly, the suit claims, a Warriors app user’s microphone is always on, so long as the app is open. So if Joe Warrior is using his app, then jumps to the home screen and forgets the app is live, his mic is perpetually hot until he returns and gives it a hard close. For some people that could mean days.
I’ve tried to contact Satchell’s lawyer for some answers, but he never responds. The Kings’ beacons don’t use audio, but I still wonder: Are they doing something similar?
I manage to dig up some clues.
At the Golden 1 Center, the Kings partner with a company called Gimbal for their Bluetooth beacons. A Seattle startup called Cartogram handles the beacon technology, using Bluetooth for mapping and movement technologies like tracking employee and visitor locations, bathroom line wait times and indoor navigation. (They’re watching where we go, when we go.)
Kalia says some parts of the Kings’ Bluetooth and Wi-Fi technology make sense, such as the ability to help guide a user to his or her seat or to find shorter lines for food. “That’s sort of the convenience factor,” he says.
But if users are concerned about who is viewing their personal information, they might want to look into terms and services on the app, as well as who has access to their data. For instance, the Kings partner with Atlanta-based Southern Experience, which is owned by the media conglomerate Cox Enterprises, for their app.
“Just be aware of where this information is going, how they’re looking at it,” Kalia warns.
That’s what I’m trying to find out.
After multiple emails with no response from the press office, and strikes from contacts at partnering companies like Anixter and Johnson Controls, I eventually go down to the offices to see what I can find.
Cordial guards at the L Street security entrance introduce me to Kings security manager Kevin Curran, who happens to be walking by at that moment. He’d love to talk, he says, but he can’t say anything until he has the go-ahead from director of public relations John Jacobs. Great.
Jacobs has a bit of a reputation, and I don’t feel confident about being able to get him on the line. Still, I take down his number and leave a voicemail.
As luck would have it, I happen to nab Jacobs’ cell number from a friend. I give him another call and shoot him two more text messages. Jackpot.
Jacobs responds with a text saying that, as he mentioned in his email, he was out of the office. But I never got an email from him.
A colleague of Jacobs’ calls me back. No one will be available to show me around the arena any time soon, she explains, as the whole comms staff is attending the All-Star Game over the weekend. Perhaps we can set up a tour early the following week.
Interesting. With the Kings brass out of my hair this weekend, I’ve found my chance to do some snooping on my own terms.
Tonight, as the Kings staff prepare to leave for All-Star weekend, I’ll return to the Golden 1 Center for perhaps the greatest evening in the venue’s history—opening night of Disney on Ice: Worlds of Enchantment.Ice princesses under surveillance
In a sea of princesses, Olaf hats and flustered dads and moms, I wait in line to enter the arena. I am struck by the glee, the electric energy emanating from this mass of 5- to 8-year-olds.
Small black orbs protrude from the ceiling near the entrance—surveillance cameras—reminders of Ranadive’s promise to one day equip the arena with facial recognition technology in lieu of paper or digital tickets.
This building pulsates with data and connectivity, with some 1,000 miles of cable and over 1,000 internet access points. They say that fans could send out more than 500,000 Snapchats or 200,000 Instagram photos per second.
I find my seat in the upper deck alongside a gaggle of kids and settle in for Disney on Ice’s Toy Story production. I have a good cry as Andy says goodbye to his favorite toy, Woody, then remember why I’m here. I set out to the arena’s recesses.
Wandering the darkened, closed-off sections of the upper level, I wonder what sort of profile the Kings have built on me. They know I attend basketball games and Disney on Ice, that I’ve lingered and chatted with Jet as he served me Heretic Brewing Co. beer. They know I enjoy chicken and fries, and that I moved to better seating to be with friends at the game. They may even know how many times I’ve cased this joint in recent weeks, where I live and the coffee shops I work in, how often I eat out and where I like to drink.
The venue is about half-full for this event, so tonight’s security is remarkably lax. The egg-shaped Knightscope K3 security robots are packed up and plugged into their sockets. Their time to surveil, humming across the arena’s walkways in the dead of night, will come after the show. Staffers meander and joke. I’m stopped twice trying to climb the stairs to the exclusive suite level but eventually succeed by entering an elevator with the haughty air of a man willing to pay the big bucks to watch mermaids ice-skate.
I wander the empty halls, peeking into vacant suites before finding a closed bar at the end of a shadowy hall. It seems to have beer on tap, and there are empty plastic cups. Any other time I might take advantage of my luck, but I spy on the wall another of the black surveillance orbs that checker the arena’s ceilings and walls.
Am I being filmed? There’s no way to be sure. That’s the thing about Big Brother, I realize. It’s not whether or not he’s watching at all times. It’s that we come to believe he is.In the belly of Big Vivek
Disney on Ice leaves me more questions than answers. I feel no closer to proving the Golden 1 Center is sentient, learning. That it diverts us with sports, pop music, monster trucks, ice-skating piggy banks and the largest indoor video scoreboard in the world to develop profiles on us.
I call up Gary Miliefsky, a consumer privacy advocate and CEO of cybersecurity firm SnoopWall, to see if I’m reading too much into this whole arena-surveillance thing. He takes a minute to look at the app’s permissions on Google Play. Then he gives me his answer.
“The Sacramento Kings app is a piece of creepware,” he concludes.
Miliefsky says that, should sports fans let it, the app can access personal contacts, see what other apps they’re using and “read sensitive log data.” He says the trend of the modern world is one where tech companies stop viewing users as people and start looking at them as products. Companies don’t make money off software anymore. They make it by selling the data their software gathers on their users.
“They don’t care about your privacy,” Miliefsky says. “In fact, that’s the last thing they care about.”
A few days after Disney Ice, I’m flanked by Jacobs and Kings Chief Technology Officer Ryan Montoya in the room I’ve been obsessing over these past three weeks—the Golden 1 Center’s 6,000-square-foot data and command center.
“Vivek has brought two concepts to the world,” Montoya says as we face a wall lined with 10 massive monitors showing the arena’s activity. “One is real-time. And the second is the bus concept. Tibco actually stands for ’the information bus company,’ and that’s the core of his software.”
By “bus,” Montoya and Ranadive mean that all the information from seemingly disparate departments—concessions, security, maintenance—come together in one place. This is the hub where endless streams of information flow in—food sales, security footage, traffic updates, police activity and, yes, the mobile app—and consolidate to make the arena run as smoothly as technologically possible.
Down here, arena staff can tap into the thousands of phones on-site to provide fans with their “personalized experiences.” Not only does security know the moment you’ve entered the venue, it knows what food and merch you’ve bought, where your seat is, the bathroom you’ve used and—believe it—exactly where you are at any moment.
Cables of neon green and Kings purple snake the ceilings in the command center’s pristine white anteroom, where toy stormtroopers guard the reams of data the Kings have gathered since opening last October, and will continue to gather in years to come.
The command center itself is manned by more than a dozen staffers. Each monitor on the wall shows something different. Real-time attendance and concessions statistics on one, a Waze map showing downtown traffic on another. Outdoor surveillance footage for the Sacramento Police Department officer sitting at the end of the room.
Kalia warned me about the concerns of having police officers in the room alongside Kings staff who have access to such robust profiles on attendees. Jacobs says they don’t share anything with the police more than any other arena would. What does that mean?
One of mankind’s truisms is that people will always approach new technologies with trepidation. I feel it here today. An arena that “checks in” to me, learns about me and builds a profile on me. Walkways and seating peppered with countless Bluetooth beacons that tap into my phone as I pass by. I ask Montoya about public fears surrounding such new technology.
“See, that’s the beauty. The technology here is not really in your face. It’s in your face if you come in here,” he says, gesturing to the command center. “Most fans will never come in here. But it’s manifested in shorter restroom lines, shorter entry points, getting your food fast, getting advanced stats, getting everything in real-time.”
He’s right. In the arena itself, a fan won’t see many surveillance cameras. The square, inch-and-a-half-wide Bluetooth beacons blend into their surroundings. Same goes for the thousand Wi-Fi connection points. By all accounts, the Golden 1 Center feels like a welcoming arena with comfortable seats, a rich, warm sound system and the highest definition video scoreboard money can buy.
Before leaving, I ask if Montoya will show me the profile that the Kings have developed on me since I downloaded the app. He says no. But they agree to show a sample profile they’ve created of one Jenny Jetson. It’s unnerving.
Jenny’s page is at once a timeline and a stat book. It shows the first day she entered the arena with her phone—that she checked out the Kings store on her smartphone and left an item in the cart, and that she posted on Twitter. How do they know this if she didn’t download the app until her next visit? Because she used the Kings’ Wi-Fi.
Once Jenny did download the app, the Kings gathered all sorts of information on her. How much she has spent at the arena and the goods and services she is likely to buy. They know how many kids she has and where she usually sits. They know the social media she uses, and how often she posts. They know where she is at any moment.
I try to keep my cool and ask what this sort of thing might be used for. It’s all about the machine learning, Montoya and Jacobs say, which will personalize the experience. Do you usually buy a hot dog? At future games, you may get a special offer on your phone. Grabbing a beer on your birthday? This one’s on the house. As with Tibco’s casino strategy, they can also target deep pockets, keep the privileged class happy.
“Our president has the ability to tell his assistant, ’If there are any CEOs coming into the game tonight, let’s just automatically give them a pass,” Montoya says. “So they walk into the kiosks and they immediately get a notification: ’Here’s a pass to the chairman’s office. You’re a guest of the president.’”Exiting the matrix
The following week, I call University of Pennsylvania Professor of Communication Joseph Turow. He’s just published a book called The Aisles Have Eyes, which discusses how brick-and-mortar retailers are growing just as invasive as internet companies when it comes to invading our privacy to learn our shopping habits and preferences.
When I tell him about the Kings app and its capabilities, Turow wonders if fans really know what they’re signing up for when they download it. He also cautions that the app’s capabilities may go far beyond the arena walls.
“If the app tracks your location and also tracks other kinds of behaviors, then the company can know what you’re doing way outside the arena, both to sell your data to advertisers and next time you come into the arena to target you more successfully or more directly,” Turow says.
I email Jacobs some follow-up questions asking if the Kings or their partners sell information on Kings app users to outside companies. He tells me his team is working on getting answers. I haven’t heard back yet.
There’s reason to believe Big Vivek’s reach goes far beyond K Street. In a recent write-up on NBA.com, a press agent wrote that fans can expect “special offers from Kings’ partners” when “out and about in the Sacramento area” from the app.
Exploring the Kings + G1C app one last time, I stumble across something I never before noticed in the Fan Zone section: Kai, the Kings Artificial Intelligence chat bot.
“Do you believe the trade with the Pelicans was a good move?” I write.
Kai responds with a link to the Kings press release, quoting its evasive headline: “The Kings acquired Hield, Evans, Galloway, and 2017 Draft selections on Feb. 20.”
“Yes,” I say, “but what is your opinion on the Cousins trade?”
“Shoot,” says Kai. “You have me a little confused. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯”
Same here, Kai.
I delete the app. But in the days to come I'm haunted by an occasional buzz, phantom push notifications from a service I no longer have.
Is it all in my head?