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

Need some really permanent identification? To help emergency medical folks access your medical records, you could get one of these babies implanted in your arm. Courtesy VeriChip
In Australia, all dogs and cats over 12 weeks of age must get an RFID. Photo: Lake Macquarie City Council


What's your name? What's your number?
Are you legit? Counterfeit?

Silently, invisibly, the scanner broadcasts its radio signal, and the tag responds: I am product #3439887349787958738. Or: I am a Holstein cow who lives at Farmer John's. Or: My name is Scribo von Alphabeticus.Cylindrical microchip implant pinched by two fingers.

This silent radio conversation occurs between a reader and a tiny, cheap radio ID tag on the product -- or in the arm of the human being. Most of these tags don't even need a battery -- they get power from the radio signal that talks to them.

These days, you can hardly click a news website without seeing another RFID breakthrough:

Boxes and pallets: Wal-Mart is requiring its top 100 shippers to RFID-tag some shipments by January.

Guns, grenades 'n grunts: The U.S. Department of Defense has made a similar request of many large suppliers, explaining, "Leveraging [RFID] technology to improve our ability to get the customer the right materiel, at the right time, and in the right condition is a critical part of our End-to-End Warfighter Support initiative."

Meds: In November, U.S. drug-makers decided to radio-tag bottles of OxyContin, a much-abused pain killer, and Viagra, an oft-faked "erectile function" drug.

Moo: In response to the Washington-State mad-cow scare of December, 2003 , the U.S. Department of Agriculture is testing an RFID system to track farm animals.

Policeman waves scanning wand over patient, small dog.Woof and meow: Pets have been getting RFID tags for more than a decade. By 2007, dogs in Portugal will need to (You choose the verb: Carry? Wear? Bear? Conceal?) an injected RFID tag. The goal is to prevent rabies by keeping better track of canines.

Me and you: This November, the Food and Drug Administration approved an implantable RFID tag, for use as a gateway to medical records. Top Mexican law-enforcement officers already use under-the-skin tags to gain access to secret facilities. Starting next year, new U.S. passport are likely to contain an RFID tag.

Are you old enough to remember the introduction of bar code to supermarkets in the 1970s?

Equation 1: RFID = bar code2

Red scan line reads black and white barcode.Bar code and RFID both store information. But while bar codes must be brought to the scanner, radio tags can be read at some distance. And some RFID tags can store far more info than bar codes. Still, bar codes won't take early retirement while RFID tags are rolling out: The black stripes are way too critical to industry.

Like a bar code, RFID tags identify products. But because they can be read secretly, the new tags make privacy advocates nervous. Photo: U.S. Congressman Bob Goodlatte

Small and silent, radio tags could revolutionize commerce. What will they do to your privacy?Inventing inventory control
For giant retailers like Wal-Mart, however, controlling inventory is a big expense, and therefore a big source of savings. The firm hopes RFID and the necessary hardware and software will give a precise picture of the location and identity of the billions of dollars' worth of goods it handles every year.

It's all for the customer's benefit, according to the Electronic Price Code Global Network, a non-profit collaboration intended to establish one electronic coding system for use around the world. RFID, the group says, "will make organizations more effective by enabling true visibility of information about items in the supply chain. Having more accurate, immediate information about the location of items, the history of items, and the number of items in the supply chain will enable organizations to be more responsive to customers and consumer needs through more efficient, customer-driven operations."

Customer-driven? Perhaps. But so far, we are hearing more pressure for RFID from government, pharmaceutical companies and retail giants.

First things first. How does RFID work?

The Why Files (home)

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Megan Anderson, project assistant; Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive