Is big brother watching you?


1. Year of the radio ID tag

2. How'zit work?

3. Piglets, pill bottles 'n passports

4. Yes. We are watching

Can radio tags help keep track of millions of farm animals and help control disease outbreaks? Photo: U.S. Department of the Interior Library

Coming soon to  medicine cabinet near you: radio-tagged pill bottles.
Some individual prescription bottles will soon have radio tags. Will Big Brother know what pills you are popping? Photo: FEMA

New U.S. passports may contain a sophisticated radio identification tag. That worries privacy experts, but the government says not to worry. Photo: U.S. Department of State

Cows: A radio in your ear?
Pallets and shipping boxes are one of many possible uses for radio frequency technology. RFIDs may soon appear on bovine auditory detection facilities (cow ears): By 2007 to 2009, the U.S. Department of Agriculture wants all farm animals to carry an individual tag, and radio tags are the front runner at this point.

Cattle graze grass under watchful eye of man on horseback.The government, says James England, a University of Idaho veterinarian who is working on RFID tracking, wants to "track animals after a disease outbreak, so we know where they have been." The United Kingdom, after all, had to slaughter millions of cows to control mad cow and foot-and-mouth diseases.

After an outbreak of a highly contagious disease like foot-and-mouth, the U.S. Department of Agriculture wants to know, within 48 hours, where the diseased animals have been. That would enable it to find and eliminate infected cows or whole herds, without wholesale slaughter of animals that may be perfectly healthy.

But today's helter-skelter welter of tracking systems makes it difficult or impossible to know were a farm animal has been.

RFID tags are likely to become the method of choice for tagging the American herd, England says, but it's a big job: the United States has more than 130 million cows, and about 70 million calves are added each year. Despite the possible benefits of a quick, accurate response, some ranchers are circling their wagons, England says. "Some will fight it tooth, toenail, and to the tail end, as an invasion of privacy, but I don't feel this is a large number. The majority feel it's coming."

Pallet -- or pill bottle?
Four prescription medicine bottles, labels turned away.If Herefords and Holsteins can get RFID tags, what about humans? Last month, the Food and Drug Administration approved the implantable VeriChip for identifying human patients. Say you're unconscious after a car accident. The hospital could read the ID number from your chip, and type it into a secure web connection which would regurgitate your medical records. That way, the doctors could learn, for example, that you are allergic to certain medicines.

(Of course, electronic access to the same info is already available through a simple bracelet.)

Although nobody is forcing you to carry an RFID tag, as the tags proliferate onto everyday objects, could you unknowingly wind up carrying one?

Not today, but someday, and perhaps someday soon. So far, among the tags we have discussed, only the VeriChip would reach the consumer. But that is starting to change. The San Francisco Public Library plans to put radio ID chips in its books. And in November, two drug companies announced that they would put RFIDs on drug bottles as a deterrent to theft and counterfeiting. One of the drugs is OxyContin, the pain-killer that addicted, among others, radio talker Rush Limbaugh.

Even though consumers will be getting RFID-labeled drug bottles, the drug's maker, Purdue Pharma L.P., says not to worry. "There are no privacy issues associated with RFID tags attached to the labels of commercial OxyContin bottles. The RFID tag is passive (as opposed to emitting a signal) and can only be read with a special scanner held within inches of the label."

eyes shift side to side
Big Brother at the border?
If you travel, you could end up carrying your own RFID chip through the streets of Bogota or Ho Chi Minh City, if the U.S. State Department has its way. Starting next year, the Department wants to equip passports with a massive RFID chips, storing the owner's digital image, and all other identification from the photo page.

We wondered: If that information is already in the passport, how could a digital copy help guarantee identification? Kelly Shannon, of the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs, told us the system would enable biometric identification: An electronic machine (still wonder why the computer biz is breathing heavy over RFIDs?) at the port of entry will compare the digitized photo with a fresh-minted electronic mug-shot of the traveler. Computers, said Shannon, match faces more accurately than people. The accuracy of facial identification "is in the low 90 percentage. It's a machine-calibrated measurement comparison between features."

USA passportCould someone standing in an airport doorway electronically read your passport and steal your identity? No, says Shannon. The Department is considering using a metal, radio-blocking cover for the passport -- although we wonder if this would trigger metal detectors at airport security checkpoints. Or the chip could become readable only after the scanner has already "seen" the actual passport. "We are going to take steps to counter the idea that they will be skimmed," she said, using slang for the casual theft of data from RFID chips.

Yet whatever the safeguards, storing private identification in an RFID raises hazards, says Clark Miller, assistant professor in the La Follette School of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "It seems to have many of the same challenges of any identification system. It could be stolen, faked, broken, or used for identity theft, and you could end up with privacy violations or failures of security."

True or false? RFID = Big Brother

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