Stop RFID in its tracks before we're all bugged
Lenore Skenazy – Twin Cities.com June 18, 2004
'I see London, I see France. I can get a bead on the exact location of your underpants and where you bought them and how often you've taken them to the laundermat, if ever — thanks to RFID."
Now, maybe that chant is not going to be popular anytime soon, but RFID is. And what is RFID? Some kind of universal surveillance system? Well, yes. Potentially.
RFID stands for Radio Frequency Identification — tiny chips that can be embedded or even sewn into a product and programmed to emit a radio signal. That signal can be read by anyone with an RFID receiver, from across the room — or across the street. It can be read through clothing and even wallets. Think of it as a bar code on steroids, broadcasting heaps of info:
"I am a pair of Hanes bikini briefs, size 8, shipped to the Poughkeepsie, N.Y., Wal-Mart on Sept. 9, and purchased the day before Halloween by Lenore (last name deleted), who also bought a whopping mountain of fun-size Snickers that day. Waaaay more than she needed for the kids in her building at (address deleted). Let's see how long she fits in these briefs!"
Well, it's not quite as snippy as that. But all that info could well be there. And Wal-Mart is planning to implement RFID throughout its stores by 2005.
At first, the tiny transmitters will be placed only on pallets of goods, not individual items. This will be a godsend to managers wondering, "Where is that load of digital cameras Sony claims it shipped last Tuesday from Denver?" Because that particular pallet of cameras will beep, "Here I am!" As it moves into the store, the pallet will also beep: "Time to order more!"
So RFID is efficient. It keeps shelves stocked and losses low. But what happens when companies start putting RFID chips on individual items?
If the chip is not turned off at the checkout counter, it will keep transmitting. So if, say, a robber is standing on your street wondering, "Any brand-new cameras around here?" The one in your living room beeps to his receiver, "Here I am!"
And what if instead of a robber, it's a private detective checking to see if you were cheating on your spouse last Sunday? You say you were home all day. But when the detective waves his RFID wand, the camera beeps, "I was purchased Sunday at Wal-Mart." Calling Raoul Felder!
What happens when RFID tags are placed on everything from your razor (as Gillette is already doing) to your tires (Michelin is experimenting with this) to your shirt (as Benetton planned, until swayed by consumer protest)? You will walk around virtually bugged.
And if you paid with an RFID credit card — as someday you will — your personal info may be there, too: This is who she is, what she bought, when and where.
Is there any way to stop this tracking in its tracks? Maybe. Consumers must insist that RFID tags be easily visible, removable and turned off at checkout.
Otherwise, it won't be only our underpants Big Brother can see. It will be everything about us.
And that stinks.
Skenazy is a columnist for the New York Daily News. E-mail her at email@example.com.
Last updated 29/06/2004