I'm sure most of us have heard of the fascinating new industry that's sprung up like a weed as an offshoot of our advances in technology: Data mining. In a nutshell, it involves the collection and dissemination of information about individuals for any use that anybody can think of.
From governments conducting censuses to businesses trying to develop profiles of the people most likely to buy their product, raw information about you concerning everything from your preference in toilet paper to how many sheets you use when you wipe is all grist for their mills. If you use three sheets now, Procter and Gamble wants to know if you'd be more willing to buy a product if you could do the same job with only two sheets, or would you be willing to use four if it were softer?
While most of us don't even think like that, it's these types of questions that plague the minds of the product development folk at big corporations and their marketing departments. Anything and everything they can find out about you will help them build a better picture of how they can get you to buy their products.
Information has become the hottest commodity on the market these days and it's not just being put to so-called innocent use by the corporations and advertising firms. Everybody, from private insurance companies to mortgage brokers to credit agencies, has ways they can make use of that data.
Do you order a large amount of pizza on your credit card or buy a lot of groceries with a high fat content? Don't be surprised if, the next time your health insurance premiums come up for renewal, they either increase your premium or you are turned down because you represent too great a risk because of possible cardiac problems.
You may think I'm exaggerating, and I wish I were, but according to this article in the Globe and Mail newspaper, it's already happening in the United States. A chain of grocery stores in New England has developed software that generates a dietary profile of each of its shoppers based on their grocery purchases.
In order to help cover the costs of developing the programme, they have sold these profiles to organizations wanting to know which of their clients has brought their ill health on themselves through bad diet so they can cut them off from coverage.
The villain behind all this is something that's actually been around for quite a while but is only just being utilized to maximum effect. Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) is small, silent, and can be utilized everywhere. Procter and Gamble want to install a chip in your fridge so they can monitor what foods you buy.
NCR is installing small screens in shopping carts in grocery stores that will run ads complementing the product you just tossed in the cart. BellSouth has applied for the patent to rummage through your garbage so they can see which chips you threw out and then sell that list to marketing firms. Finally, Pfizer is keeping track of how many Viagra you take and when through chips in the packaging.
Of course the larger implications for RFID use lie in security issues. IBM currently holds the patent for building RFID peephole in walls and ceilings of public places where they will be able to peek into your purse, pocket, and wallet. The chip is being installed in ID cards, like the new American national ID card currently on order, and passports tagged at the borders.
The fact that data is being collected in ways we can't even imagine is scary enough as it is, but what's even scarier are the implications of what that data could be utilized for. Like the example of the New England grocery chain selling its client information to insurance companies, what's to stop any and all information changing hands from supposedly innocent users like marketing companies to those who will use it to create some sort of profile of you for insurance reasons or establishing credit?
Finally, it comes down to what gives them the right to gather this information in the first place. This is information akin to that gathered by a wiretap as far as I'm concerned and should be subject to the same rules and regulations. What gives any business the right to know about my eating habits, just on the off chance that they might be able to sell me a product?
If a government wants to spy on a person, fine — ask the courts for permission like you would in the case of a wire tap and you can then plant RFID devices all over their body. If you're going to have RFID devices in public places monitoring people's activity, which is understandable in these strange times, make damn sure you draw up really tight regulations governing how the information it produces is used and who has access to it.
There is also the question of disposal of the information gathered. What will happen to the literally miles and miles of data that is accumulated? Is it going to be stored somewhere or will it be deleted as soon as it's found to be of no use to anyone?
Radio frequencies can be monitored by anybody. This technology is highly susceptible to being hacked, according to engineers at John Hopkins University, with it becoming even more vulnerable when they enable the tags to be read from a distance. What kind of guarantees are there that personal information like medical records aren't being lifted and then sold to the highest bidder? Maybe it's naïve to believe that sort of activity doesn't occur already, but this will make it even easier for people to access that information in the future.
A few years back when Benetton found out that consumers don't like being spied on, they were forced to recall millions of garments that had RFID chips installed in them. Other companies in Europe have been forced to back down in the face of consumer outrage, so you can make a difference. In the above cases, people simply refused to buy products from Gillette and other companies involved with making use of the chip until they said they had removed them.
But it seems like North Americans, in spite of all our claims to be freedom loving, have no problems giving up their freedom of privacy at the drop of the hat. The governments have plenty of means of collecting information about all of us already, all of which are regulated by laws to protect you from them. RFID is no different from things like wiretaps, telephoto lenses, and long-range microphones employed to infringe on your privacy now.
I see little or no justification for corporations like Proctor and Gamble to be accumulating personal information on individuals in the name of making sure we see the right commercial at the right time. As these new information technologies get more and more sophisticated, it's up to the public to decide whether or not they are willing to allow their personal habits to be public knowledge.
The industry claims that regulations will develop as the technology use expands. To me, that is akin to closing the barn door after the animals have escaped. Now's the time to tell them what we will and will not allow them to collect and what we will allow them to do with that information. You have the right to privacy. Demand that it is respected.