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A Stranger Is Watching

Jonathan Stavole

If you spend enough time listening to late-night radio or surfing the odd corners of the internet, you will invariably encounter a feverish speculation that goes something like this: At this very moment, a government black op agency is devising a plan to implant subcutaneous ID chips in the nape of your neck. Unless this scheme is exposed, you--along with pretty much everyone else--will find yourself permanently tagged. The government will be able to track your every move. Next thing you know, the guys in the jackboots will be coming for your guns.

Okay. You can exhale now, because that is not going to happen any time soon. At the very least, not until our next 9/11. But unfortunately (or very fortunately, if you happen to work in the marketing racket) a very similar technology is making its way to Main Street in a big way. In the spirit of the age, the coming blow to personal privacy is a public-private collaboration, with government and business both investing heavily in the latest permutations of a booming technology called Radio Frequency Identification.

Here's how it works: RFID systems employ tiny computer chips that contain unique serial numbers. The chips can be affixed discreetly to any manner of object. Most commonly, they are about the size of a grain of rice. But some chips are so small they can be woven into the fabric of paper currency--a proposal, it so happens, under active consideration in the European Union.

The microchip in the tag is connected to a tiny antenna that absorbs electromagnetic energy beamed at it from a reader device. Once energized, the chip transmits information back to the reader; the information may include type of product, when and where it was manufactured, or whatever else the manufacturer deems significant. The functional range between reader and chip is anywhere from a few inches to 30 feet. From a reader, of course, all this information can easily be dumped into a computer database, and thus is born the marketer's wettest wet dream.

Currently, "spy chips," as critics have taken to calling them, are used for things like toll-way EZ passes or placed on shipping crates and pallets for the purpose of tracking merchandise through a company's distribution chain. Last year, two of the Twin Cities' biggest retailers, Target and Best Buy, announced plans for RFID pilot programs, placing the chips at a few regional distribution facilities. By 2007, according to both companies, all deliveries coming to Best Buy and Target warehouses will be chipped. Naturally, Wal-Mart has beaten both of them to the punch, announcing that all its pallets will be tagged this year.

From a business perspective, RFID technology holds near infinite appeal. On the retail level, for instance, RFID tags promise to speed the service at checkout lanes. Products can be scanned without the cashier needing to align the laser with a bar code. And, no doubt, cashiers will enjoy reduced incidence of carpal tunnel syndrome as RFIDs become less expensive and more common.

To privacy purists, RFID technology is about as welcome as Ron Artest at Bill Laimbeer Tribute Night at the Detroit Palace. Left unfettered, the critics contend, RFID will become a major force in the expansion of the surveillance society. It will, they say, present the government and private industry with unprecedented and nearly unlimited opportunities to gather data on people.

Consider the possibilities. Chips may be sewn into the hem of your blue jeans, woven in the soles of your sneakers, or embedded in that vial of Viagra you just purchased. Anyone with access to the appropriate RFID scanner could, theoretically at least, harvest that information. That data, in turn, could be fed to that fast-growing sector of the economy, the data mining industry.

"Proponents of RFID envision a pervasive global network of millions of receivers along the entire supply chain--in airports, highways, distribution centers, warehouses, retail stores, and in the home," says Katherine Albrecht, who is the founder of the privacy advocacy group CASPIAN. "This would allow for seamless, continuous identification and tracking of physical items as they move from one place to another, enabling companies to determine the whereabouts of all their products at all times."

RFID's most vociferous critics tend to fall in one of two groups: civil libertarians who are concerned about RFID's threat to their privacy and biblical literalists who see RFID as the fulfillment of the mark-of-the-beast prophecies. Albrecht, it so happens, seems to fall into both groups. A doctoral student at Harvard pursuing a Ph.D. in education, Albrecht is both committed civil libertarian and devout Christian. While she is circumspect in her theological pronouncements, many of her followers directly tie RFID to the coming End Times. "RFID," they say, "is the wave of the Antichrist future."

For her part, Albrecht focuses on the privacy angle. Last fall, she got in a nasty public wrangle after she published a photographic exposé of the use of tags on common products at an RFID trade show. But she makes a compelling case for the creepy implications of the technology. Once a product is placed in a shopping cart, she points out, RFID scanners throughout a store will be able to sense it.

As the tag moves through the store, point-of-sale media will display advertisements tailored to each passing shopper. Perhaps this will based on the items in the shopping cart. So if you've loaded up on Mexican beer and corn chips, the television screen fronting the next aisle would inform you of salsa a few steps away; it's not much of a mental leap to figure the salsa and the corn chips would share a corporate parent. (A variant of that sales paradigm is prophesied in the mall scene in the futuristic thriller Minority Report; the scene, by the way, is fittingly and cynically freighted with actual product placements).

Of course, you can tease it out further yet. If RFID information is combined with a shopper's profile--gleaned, for instance, from the increasingly ubiquitous "customer loyalty card"--the data mining applications will expand exponentially. And it is difficult to imagine that it will be long before warrant-bearing lawmen come browsing through the databases. In an age of terror, there is little doubt that the government will fight for as much access as the public will bear. Accordingly, RFID promises to become a major bummer for anyone treading water in the black-market economy.

The appeal of RFID technology isn't restricted to corporate America, the cops, and the taxman. Last month, the State Department commenced tagging passports. While pre-chip passports remain valid, all renewals and replacements will be embedded with chips. This, the government says, will make passports more difficult to forge. Perhaps so.

But there is a flip side. Even by admission of the State Department's own contractors, a person with a compatible RFID reader could conceivably tap into a passport from as far away as 30 feet. So be forewarned. When you're at the airport in the not too distant future, the casual-looking guy leaning by the sunglasses kiosk might be swiping your vital statistics--your photograph, home address, date of birth, even your signature. And you won't have a clue until the bill collectors come calling.

"Someone with one of those readers could pick up all the information in the area," says ACLU spokesperson Will Potter. "It could be the Holy Grail of identity theft."

With proposals in the works for RFID tags in driver's licenses and library books, and the expanded use in the retail world, there will be more public debate on RFIDs. But given the shared interest of government and business in the outcome of that debate, it's also a fair bet that one day soon, you or someone you know will find yourself the victim of a digital pickpocket.


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