RFID — the next double-edged sword
A couple of years ago I attended a demonstration at the Judge Institute given by the MIT Auto-ID Lab in conjunction with some large US companies like Procter and Gamble. The Lab had developed something called Radio Frequency ID — tiny radio transmitters which could be printed on to product packaging, clothing etc. The idea — as explained to us — was that this would make inventory control much easier. Each product could be ‘read’ by a suitable device, which would then look it up on the Net and ascertain what it was and decide how it should be treated. One of the demos showed a package of quick-cook pasta being put into a beefed-up microwave oven. The oven read the code emitted by the tag, looked it up on a database on the Net and determined how long the cooking time should be. Using this technology, the academics explained, supermarket shelves could ‘know’ when stocks of a product were running out, and checkouts could compile a bill without requiring you to unload all the stuff onto the counter. They even suggested that the RFID system could be used to enable shelves to adjust prices for individual customers (who were of course equipped with a suitable gizmo). And so on and so forth.
What was NOT mentioned, of course, is that RFID technology could enable the finest-grain surveillance technology ever seen. RFID tags are already approaching the size of a printed full-stop. As such, they can be printed on banknotes, clothes, condoms — you name it. And with the right infrastructure everything that happens to a RFID tag can be tracked — and logged. Now it’s been revealed that the scientists working on this stuff realised all along that their work has a really dark side. According to this Register report, their PR firm has been advising them on how to distract public concern from privacy worries. But the relevant documents fell into the hands of campaigning group CASPIAN. Some quotes:
“The Auto-ID Center is the organization entrusted with developing a global Internet infrastructure for radio frequency identification. Their plans are to tag all the objects manufactured on the planet with RFID chips and track them via the Internet,” CASPIAN says. Apparently the RFID lobby sees public reluctance as nothing more than an obstacle to be overcome with shallow bromides and platitudes. Many of the documents are related to focus-group surveys in which consumers wisely note that RFID offers them few benefits while posing considerable threats to privacy. In response, PR firm Fleischman-Hillard recommends that the industry communicate several inaccuracies, the most egregious being that the RFID transponder is “nothing more than an improved bar-code,” as if broadcasting data were an inconsequential difference. In another it is suggested that the sheep-like populace will resign itself to the inevitability of this innovation, though they may not much care for it. In one document it is recommended that RFID tags be re-named “Green Tags” to suggest an overlay of environmental concern. But it seems that they will be re-named eTags, to give them that cool Silicon Valley cachet instead. At no point do the flacks suggest the obvious solution to consumer concerns, namely that any products containing such tags be identified clearly and that they be designed so that buyers can remove or disable them easily. …