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Wake Up! Wake Up! It's Yer Chips With Everything

Repost from Schnews | 18.07.2003 16:39 | Globalisation | Health | Technology | London

Repost from Schnews Issue 415
Friday 18th July 2003.




"Imagine walking into a store and having a computer take an inventory of everything you're wearing-right down to the size and color of your underwear. Store employees could even read the contents of your wallet to determine whether you're a desirable customer or someone they want to ignore based on your financial value. The possibilities for discrimination are quite disturbing." - Katherine Albrecht, director of Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering.

Good news for anyone who feels like their privacy hasn't been infringed quite enough yet. There's a new wee beastie come to fill your lives with joy, RFID (radio frequency identification). If these catch on - and it looks like they already are - everything you buy could soon have a unique number that can be transmitted to anyone nearby, without your permission.

RFIDs are tiny chips which can be embedded into almost anything. When a reading device is placed within 5 metres of them, they transmit their unique number to the device. The idea is that shops will use them instead of barcodes, so you just push your trolley through the checkout, and you'll know how much you owe. Sounds good so far.

Now it gets dodgy, folks. As each chip has a unique number, if someone knows the number of the chip embedded in your shoes, for example, they will be able to track exactly what you do. So a supermarket could know when you enter their store, how long you spend in each section, and what you buy. At the recent Chinese Communist Party Congress, each delegate had to have a badge, equipped with RFID chip, that tracked them wherever they went.

"The Auto-ID Centre is designing, building, testing and deploying a global infrastructure ... that will make it possible for computers to identify any object anywhere in the world instantly," happily burbles the Auto-ID Centre press release.

A casino in Sydney has already put 80,000 of these chips into their employee uniforms in order to reduce theft. Michelin, which make 800,000 tyres every day, are soon to place RFID chips in each tyre, which will be matched to the make of car they are fitted to in a huge database. Tesco are just about to introduce a huge trial of the technology. Other companies testing the technology include all the SchNEWS favourites: Gillette, Gap and Bennetton.

In Tulsa, Oklahoma, a network has been created which has the capability to track anyone going anywhere in the town centre as long as they have an RFID chip somewhere on them. A company called Applied Digital Solutions has already developed an RFID chip for people, it's 11mm long, embedded under the skin and can be read from 4 feet away. And yes, folks, these have already been implanted into people.

The EU is in the process of putting RFIDs into high denomination bank notes as a fraud-reducing measure. "RFID tags also have the ability of recording information such as details of the transactions the paper note has been involved in," according to analyst Prianka Chopra. In one fell swoop this would destroy any of the anonymity of using cash. The other great thing about this is that anyone with an RFID reader (which will become more and more common) can tell exactly how much cash you have on you... Hooray!

So what's the Home Office doing about this potentially huge privacy risk? Urging caution and debating the privacy risks? Nah, course not, they're putting 4.5 million quid up for improving it. There is also much interest in using RFID in passports, driving licenses, and any other documents you could name, potentially allowing no-one to opt out of RFID, if documents without the chip are rejected.

If chips were installed in mandatory ID cards police (and others) could access extensive information on anyone just by scanning from metres away. In the US many supermarkets require official state ID to sign up for loyalty cards. Huge databases can easily be created from this as corporations merge the personal information of their clients in order to build frighteningly accurate personal profiles. So your supermarket shares your info with your bank who shares it with your preferred clothes shops and all of a sudden they've got a massive database of info on Jo Soap. Impressive huh?

Leaked briefings on focus groups held by Auto-ID, the main people behind RIFD, reveal people's true perception of this technology, "There are currently no clear benefits by which to balance even the mildest negative. While the possible benefits were explained to each group at length, nothing seemed to really motivate or inspire. In fact, the presentation of benefits seemed to automatically lead consumers to think of negatives." This dislike has already prompted concessions from suppliers, such as chips that are destroyed when they leave the shop, and only attaching chips to packaging rather than the product itself.

Ironically the leaked briefings came from a public part of the Auto-ID website. If they can't protect their own confidential documents, it's hard to believe their claims of keeping huge databases of customers' information private. As these chips are getting so tiny (less than 0.3mm), they are extremely difficult to find and destroy. Washing will not destroy them, and they need to be crushed or micro-waved (with the corresponding fire risk) to make them ineffective. And you can't exactly go walking round Tesco's with a microwave to disable all the bloody things.

"RFID technology is moving forward at an incredible pace, and there is an urgent need for this legislation. Companies have already begun embedding these chips in products people buy today. For all you know, these chips could be in your home now. The problem is you have no way of knowing," claimed Albrecht.

Luckily this wonderful nirvana of new technology is starting to receive some very bad press. Wal-Mart quietly started a trial of the technology in one of its stores, but when the company that made the chips turned up and started pointing it out to customers, they were horrified. Wal-Mart were so inundated by complaint calls that they had PR executives answering the phones, bringing the trial to a sudden end. Hopefully this technology will be seen in a similar way to GM: big benefits for big business but only losses for everyone else. They get your personal preferences and all the fat profits while you lose any morsel of privacy.

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Display the following 4 comments

  1. RFID TAGS update. — Paul Taylor
  2. whats next ? — Paul Arnold
  3. This is just silly techno fear — James Anon
  4. NOT silly techno fear, folks — jespy