The RFID Controversy: Corporations Want to Imbed Traceable Microchips to Everything We Buy, Wear, Drive and Read
~ U.S. Government Accountability Office report on RFID technology
A future full of traceable microchips is much closer than many would like to think. Already microchips are being found in computer printers, car tires, personal care products, clothing, library books and "contactless" payment cards. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg, experts say.
Radio-frequency identification (RFID) is an automatic identification method that relies on storing and remotely retrieving data using devices called RFID tags or transponders. Right now some of the world's largest corporations are vested in the success of RFID technology, which couples minute computers with radio antennas to broadcast information about sales and buyers back to company databases.
The Washington Post reports that this technology is already well developed and enables objects and people to be tagged and tracked wirelessly. Newer and potentially invasive uses are being patented, perfected and deployed daily to unsuspecting consumers.
While the technology obviously presents a risk to privacy, many believe that these microchips are the way of the future. Like it or not, these potential tracking devices will soon be imbedded everywhere imaginable. Microchips with antennas will be hidden in virtually everything you buy, wear, drive and read, allowing retailers and law enforcement to track consumers wherever they go.
But your average person doesn’t want to live in a world where their private habits are recorded, cataloged and passed on without their permission. However, companies argue that RFID tags improve supply-chain efficiency, cut theft, and guarantee that brand-name products are authentic. They say that RFID doorways would easily scan your purchases automatically as you leave the store, eliminating the need to checkout.
Convenience is a strong selling point. RFID-enabled refrigerators, for example, could warn about meat that needs to be tossed or even generate your shopping list for you. You fridge could send signals to your interactive TV to feature "personalized" commercials about the kind of products you tend purchase. Sniffers in your microwave could potentially read a chip-equipped TV dinner and cook it without the need for instructions.
"We've seen so many different uses of the technology," says Dan Mullen, president of AIM Global, a national association of data collection businesses, including RFID, "and we're probably still just scratching the surface in terms of places RFID can be used."
The problem, according to the critics, is that microchipped products might very well do a whole lot more that offer added convenience. Mark Rasch, former head of the computer-crime unit of the U.S. Justice Department says that with tags in so many objects, relaying information to databases (potentially linked to credit and bank cards) almost no aspect of life would be safe from spying eyes of corporations and governments.
By placing sniffers in strategic areas, government and corporations can invisibly "rifle through people's pockets, purses, suitcases, briefcases, luggage _ and possibly their kitchens and bedrooms _ anytime of the day or night," says Rasch, now managing director of technology at FTI Consulting Inc., a Baltimore-based company.
In an RFID world, "You've got the possibility of unauthorized people learning stuff about who you are, what you've bought, how and where you've bought it ... It's like saying, 'Well, who wants to look through my medicine cabinet?'"
According to Rasch "it's going to be used in unintended ways by third parties _ not just the government, but private investigators, marketers, lawyers building a case against you...”
The increasing volume of data collected on consumers, is worrisome, says Mike Hrabik, chief technology officer at Solutionary, a computer-security firm in Bethesda, Md. "Are companies using that information incorrectly, and are they giving it out inappropriately? I'm sure that's happening. Should we be concerned? Yes."
Even some industry proponents recognize risks. Elliott Maxwell, a research fellow at Pennsylvania State University who serves as a policy adviser to EPCglobal, the industry's standard-setting group, says data broadcast by microchips can easily be intercepted, and misused.
As the range of RFID readers increases, it will be "difficult to know who is gathering what data, who has access to it, what is being done with it, and who should be held responsible for it," Maxwell wrote in RFID Journal, an industry publication.
But maybe privacy concerns, say some RFID supporters, are being overblown. Mark Roberti, editor of RFID Journal, says the idea that businesses would conspire to create profiles of people is "simply silly."
Corporations know Americans are sensitive about their privacy, he says, and are careful not to alienate consumers by violating it. Besides, "All companies keep their customer data close to the vest ... There's absolutely no value in sharing it. Zero."
American Express spokeswoman Judy Tenzer says, "Security and privacy are a top priority for American Express in everything we do."
But industry documents suggest otherwise. A 2005 patent application by American Express itself describes how RFID-embedded objects carried by shoppers could emit "identification signals" when queried by electronic "consumer trackers." The system could identify people, record their movements, and send them video ads that might offer "incentives" or "even the emission of a scent."
RFID readers could be placed in public venues, including "a common area of a school, shopping center, bus station or other place of public accommodation," according to the application.
Companies such as IBM, NCR Corp., and Procter & Gamble have also submitted patents to use RFID tech to track consumer behavior in different ways.
These "raise the hair on the back of your neck," says Liz McIntyre, co-author of "Spychips," a book that is critical of the industry. "The industry has long promised it would never use this technology to track people. But these patent records clearly suggest otherwise."
In the marketing world, she asserts, "data on individual consumers is gold, and the only thing preventing these companies from abusing technologies like RFID to get at that gold is public scrutiny."
In 2002, Fleishman-Hillard produced a report for the industry that counseled RFID makers to "convey (the) inevitability of technology," and to develop a plan to "neutralize the opposition," by adopting friendlier names for radio tags such as "Bar Code II" and "Green Tag."
In a 2003 report, Helen Duce, the industry's trade group director in Europe, wrote that "the lack of clear benefits to consumers could present a problem in the 'real world,'" particularly if privacy issues were stirred by "negative press coverage."
The Duce report's recommended that corporations should tell consumers that RFID is regulated (even though it’s not), and that RFID is just a new and improved bar code (even though it’s not), and that retailers will announce when an item is radio tagged, and deactivate the tags at check-out upon a customer's request (although that is unlikely to happen).
However, the real problem is that this technology wouldn’t be any less invasive even if it were regulated by the government, or some other organizations. In fact, widespread government access and regulation of RFID technology is the worst-case scenario for most. For privacy loving Americans, there is no entity, whether government, corporate, or private, that we would willingly allow such complete and invasive access to our private lives. But will we actually stand up and demand our privacy? Well, that’s the real question.
Posted by Rebecca Sato.