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

All of these technologies are very good at tracking our activities in public.  How does this affect privacy in public places?

RFID chips at a supermarket took home the Big Brother Award in 2003. Could the technology do this? Photo: Big Brother Awards Germany

All aboard! RFID system is on track!
As the RFID industry lurches forward, some privacy advocates are trying to limit the technology before it appears on every consumer product in the store. Lee Tien is an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, one of several groups seeking to restrict RFID. "RFIDs are a growing threat to privacy," he says, Teenage girl behind cash register ready to ring up sale."because they are very good at tracking things, and unfortunately many things that are carried by people, or are otherwise associated with people. So the ability to track things, whether physically or informationally, de facto becomes a way to track people."

When you buy something with a credit card, what happens to your personal information? Could your identity be linked to the RFID tag embedded in your purchase? Photo: OSHA

Tien sees RFID in the context of other growing surveillance technologies, such as biometric identification, global positioning satellites, location abilities on cellular phones and public video surveillance cameras. "All of these technologies," he says, "more so than an earlier generation, are very good at tracking our movements, our activities in public, so the question arises, how does this affect privacy in public places?"

RFID has a number of pernicious characteristics, Tien says, starting with the fact that they usually respond to any compatible reader within range. "The current generation of RFID chip has no privacy protection, no access protection, so the basic retail RFID is like a little beeper, saying 'Here I am' to any technologically compatible reader that is in range." The tag may identify the title of a book, Tien adds, or even a bra size.

Mischief awaits: Could a mugger scan your backpack, looking for an expensive camera or laptop?

We know all about you...
A bar-code reader could do all this for products with bar codes -- but only if a criminal manages to hold the product in front of the laser. RFIDs, of course, don't need that line-of-sight connection. And radio tags will not only identify a product model and size, but also that individual product, as shown in these specifications for the electronic product code. If your laptop has a serial number in addition to a model number, won't you be easier to track?

As the campaign for privacy meets the campaign to sell RFIDs by the billions, Tien calls for "a genuine, serious conversation between society and the RFID industry." Most of the benefits of radio identification, he says, "Exist within the supply chain, in areas of the economy that don't touch the consumer, and where privacy is not an issue." If the goal is tracking goods, he says, "let's do something to mitigate these privacy issues, while maintaining the potential benefits of RFID technology. ... Our position is that people should be able to engage in everyday life without being tracked without their consent, without the fear of being tracked."

Man in suit stands at podium, holding up two photographs.

Playing tag
Information, as editor Steward Brand once observed, "wants to be free." To Tien, the best way to prevent private information from running free is to avoid gathering it in the first place. You could, for example, disable RFID tags. Booske suggests one brute-force solution: blasting the tags with a strong radio signal: "You could deliver enough charge to the IC [integrated circuit] to burn it out, to fry it, but the technology would have to do that in every case, reliably."

Retailers could also disable tags at the cash register, Booske adds. "You could have it swiped, with something that disables it, and a reader that would confirm that it is disabled."

Or, if you noticed the tag, and it was removable, you could whack it with a 3-lb. computer hammer, or pitch it out.

The Why Files wanted to get the industry perspective on these privacy concerns, so we contacted EPC Global, which promotes worldwide acceptance of RFID. After saying he'd be available for an interview, PR man Jack Grasso didn't call back. Others industry representatives similarly failed to get back to us on deadline.

We know where your are...
If you worry about the privacy implications of RFID, technology-policy expert Clark Miller cautions that restrictions on access to databases are not foolproof. "The more useful the identification number becomes, in terms of providing access to records or a location, the more you need the ability to read it. For more and more people to make use of the information, you have to have more of an open system."

Blue RFID tag attached to breaking system of jet.This experimental RFID tag and sensor system monitors brake temperature on F-16 jets. Photo: PNL

Already, huge computer databases are recording the financial and purchase habits of American consumers, and those databases could easily swallow data from RFIDs, Miller indicates. "As computers develop the capability to generate larger and larger databases and to search and extract information about particular people," he says, "it becomes possible, not just for government, but also for large companies to acquire and utilize information about individuals from lots of different sources. This raises important questions about the appropriate relationships between individuals and large institutions in a democratic society."

Sophisticated retailers already know what their customers are buying, says Miller. "We do know those records are being accumulated, that's one reason for a frequent shopper card; stores are collating that information on every grocery product you buy."

Once RFIDs are placed on individual packages, Miller asks, "If you buy a product at Wal-Mart, in the record of the transaction, will it include the RFID number?"

The more useful the identification number becomes, the more people will need to read it. If databases can link an RFID number to your identity, would the readers that will be sprouting in store doorways, airport security checkpoints, even building entrances be able to track your movement? "It does create the possibility that someone could amass this information that connects that ID number to your credit card," says Miller.

If that information is stored about the tagged sweater you just bought, "It would be as if you had an RFID implanted in you," Miller says. "Every time you wore that sweater, it could be used to track you."

And we haven't even mentioned the potential for tracking employee movement at a facility with radio tags.

If the hype about RFID proves even half true, the little tags are destined to become a disruptive technology, along with the auto, television and Internet. Disruptive technologies do what the name implies: They act as levers that move society in unpredictable ways.

And Miller says, the tags will spawn moral and political dilemmas. "We'll discover, as we implement RFID tags, that while they solve certain practical problems, they will raise important questions about what kind of society we want to live in and what priorities we place on values such as security, freedom and privacy."

Get tagged in our electronic-identification bibliography.

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