Thursday , June 13 2024
Two leading critics of Radio Frequency Identification technology issue a call to arms over its perceived threat to personal privacy.

Book Review: Spychips

“Imagine a world of no more privacy.”

That is the first sentence of and apprehension that motivates Spychips, an exploration of the history, technology and perceived dangers of Radio Frequency IDentification (RFID) tags. RFID tags are silicon computer chips with a unique identification number and a flat metallic antenna attached. The antenna allows the chip to communicate with RFID readers via radio waves. The chips, some as small as a grain of sand, can be imbedded in anything from products, the packages they come in, credit or frequent shopper cards, or even human skin. The radio waves allow the tag to be read from a distance through whatever it is in without the knowledge of the person possessing it.

Authors Katherine Albrecht and Liz McIntyre are among the principal U.S. critics of RFID tags, which they call “spychips.” They are the leaders of an organization called CASPIAN (Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering) and their book both explores “spychips” and serves as a call to arms of the dangers they believe the devices present to personal privacy.

Promoters of RFID technology say it is a breakthrough for tracking products. For example, with an RFID reader at a checkout counter, merchants can know immediately and exactly what their inventory and sales look like. RFID tags differ from the ubiquitous UPC symbol because every 16-ounce can of a particular beverage has the same UPC code. With RFID, however, a unique number is assigned each and every individual can.

While it seems innocuous enough, Albrecht and McIntyre say the plans and efforts of the RFID industry and government to date reveal the true threat of the technology. For example, IBM filed a patent application in 2001 for the “identification and tracking of persons using RFID-tagged items” by collecting RFID numbers at cash registers and storing them in a database. When the purchaser of an item returns, their “exact identity” can be determined from any tags they have with or on them and the tags can be “used to monitor the movements of the person through the store or other areas.”

Of course, this would only be used for the consumer’s benefit, right? Not so, argue Albrecht and McIntyre. Among other things, they quote an article by an RFID policy advisor indicating the spychips could be used for “digital redlining.” By using information gained from such things as RFID-tagged loyalty cards, merchants could provide enhanced service and pricing to its best customers. That information would also enable the store to provide “marginal service and high prices designed to drive the unattractive consumer somewhere else.”

Stores aren’t the only place tracking might occur. If the RFID number ends up in a database, it can be used by whoever gets access to the database. As a result, as IBM’s patent application notes:

Although the systems . . . of the present invention . . . have been described in the context of a retail store, it can be applied to other locations having roaming areas, such as shopping malls, airports, train stations, bus stations, elevators, trains, airplanes, restrooms, sports arenas, libraries, theaters, museums, etc.

Thus, an RFID tag in the shoes you bought last week could be used to track where you go. Likewise, an RFID chip in an automobile could be picked up by readers at interstate exits or highway intersections, enabling the manufacturer — or the government — to track where a vehicle was going and how long it took.

It is this potential that makes RFID tracking attractive to governments, particularly given the tremendous interest in security after September 11th. A variety of government agencies have expressed interest in the use of spychips, including the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Homeland Security and the Pentagon. There has even been discussion of weaving tags into U.S. currency and postage stamps. But McIntyre and Albrecht question whether the potential cost in personal privacy is too great. As they note, a law enforcement agent or someone else with an RFID reader in a backpack could compile a list of everyone people attending any meeting or rally if they desired. Those RFID tags could also be placed on a “watch” list so the people carrying them could continue to be tracked.

Spychips asserts this potential is far closer than most people think. For example, in 2003 the Gillette razor company placed an RFID-enabled shelf in a store in Cambridge, England. Unbeknownst to shoppers, the shelf sensed when someone picked up RFID-tagged packages. A camera would take a close up shot of the shopper’s face and transmit it to store security. A second camera would take the shopper’s photo at the checkout counter. Similarly, at a Wal-Mart in Oklahoma, picking up RFID-tagged packages of lipstick triggered a webcam that was fed live to Procter & Gamble’s offices 750 miles away. Again, the shoppers were unaware they were being watched.

Getting into your car doesn’t prevent or stop tracking. Toll passes that enable vehicles to pass through toll roads or bridges without stopping often use RFID chips. Spychips reports at least one case in which a divorce attorney subpoenaed the RFID-generated toll records of a woman for use in a child custody case to show a pattern of her working late.

What about your home? Any RFID-tagged item you purchase will contain the tag when you take it home. While current technology is such that readers may not be able to pick them up from the street, that may not always be the case. In fact, tagging the home is viewed by the RFID industry as a potentially lucrative market. One concept that’s being explored is “smart homes.” With a combination of RFID tags (some even embedded in plants), video cameras and microphones, the smart home could monitor you throughout the day to help determine your “mental state/health status.” As Spychips suggests, the idea brings to mind the telescreen in George Orwell’s 1984 that was able to hear and watch every activity.

RFID proponents might accuse Spychips of being a hysterical screed from two anti-RFID zealots insistent on seeing Big Brother where it doesn’t actually exist. Still, this extensively footnoted work is based in large part upon the documents and actions of the RFID industry, its proponents and the government.

Sadly, Spychips establishes that it is not only possible to imagine a world with no more privacy, the potential for such a world may already exist.

About Tim Gebhart

After 30 years of practicing law to provide shelter for his family, books and dogs. Tim Gebhart is now perfecting the art of doing little more than reading, writing and sleeping.

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