He who mounts a wild elephant goes where wild elephant goes. Randolph Bourne
Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) has incubated in relative obscurity for over 60 years, quietly changing our lives with scant attention outside technology community. First used to identify Allied aircraft in World War II, RFID is now well integrated in building security, transportation, fast food, health care and livestock management.
Proponents hail RFID as next natural step in our technological evolution. Opponents forewarn of unprecedented privacy invasion and social control. Which is it? That’s a bit like asking if Christopher Columbus was an intrepid visionary or a ruthless imperialist. It depends on your perspective. One thing is clear: As RFID extends its roots into common culture we each bear responsibility for tending its growth.
For Your Eyes Only
RFID functions as a network of microchip transponders and readers that enables mainstream exchange of more — and more specific — data than ever before. Every RFID transponder, or “smart tag”, is encrypted with a unique electronic product code (EPC) that distinguishes tagged item from any other in world. “Smart tags” are provocatively designed with both read and write capabilities, which means that each time a reader retrieves an EPC from a tag, that retrieval becomes part of EPC’s dynamic history. This constant imprinting provides real-time tracking of a tagged item at any point in its lifespan.
Recognizing potential commercial benefits of technology, scientists at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) began developing retail applications of RFID in 1999. Install a reader in a display shelf and it becomes a “smart shelf”. Network that with other readers throughout store and you’ve got an impeccable record of customers interacting with products — from shelf to shopper; from shopper to cart; from cart to cashier, etc.
Proctor & Gamble, The Gillette Company and Wal-Mart were among first to provide financial and empirical support to project. Less than five years later RFID has eclipsed UPC bar coding as next generation standard of inventory control and supply chain management. RFID offers unparalleled inventory control at reduced labor costs; naturally retail industry is excited.
Katherine Albrecht founded consumer advocacy group CASPIAN (Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering) to educate consumers about potential dangers of automatic-identification technology. She warns that “smart tags” — dubbed “spy chips” — increase retailer profits at expense of consumer privacy.
RFID provides a continuous feed of our activities as we peek, poke, squeeze and shake tagged items throughout store. Advocacy groups consider this electronic play-by-play a treasure for corporate marketing and a tragedy for consumer privacy.
Albrecht’s apprehension is understandable. However, shopping in any public venue is not private. It’s public. The decision to be in a public space includes a tacit acknowledgement that one can be seen by others. That’s difference between public world and private world.
What if those worlds collide? CASPIAN and other consumer groups are concerned about retailers using RFID to connect public activities with private information. Because each EPC leaves a singular electronic footprint, linking each item of each transaction of each customer with personally identifying information, anyone with access to system can simply follow footprints to a dossier of customer and their purchases.
Again, we must be clear. RFID does enable retailers to surveil consumers and link them with their purchasing histories. As disconcerting as that may be, it is neither new nor unique to RFID. Anyone who uses credit cards agrees to forfeit some degree of privacy for privilege of buying now and paying later. Credit card companies collect and retain your name, address, telephone and Social Security numbers. This personal information is used to track date, time, location, items and price of every purchase made with card?
Don’t use credit cards? Unless you pay with cash, someone is monitoring you too. The now familiar UPC bar codes on nearly all consumer goods neatly catalogue intimate details of all check and bank card purchases. Cash remains last outpost for would-be anonymous consumer. Of course, all things are subject to change. RFID inks may be coming soon to a currency near you, but that’s a discussion for another day.
If RFID is no more intrusive than a curious fellow shopper or a ceiling mounted security camera, what is downside for consumer groups? If RFID is no more revealing than a bank or credit card transaction, what is upside for corporate suits? There must be more.
Indeed, there is. Bear in mind that “smart tags” are uniquely designed to pinpoint tagged items anytime, anywhere from point of origin through point of sale. And, theoretically, beyond.
Ah, great beyond. RFID’s potential is limited only by our imaginations. And not just our imaginations; imagination of anyone who has a reader and a transponder. Wal-Mart. Your employer. The government. Anyone.
Everything Costs Something
Members of German privacy group FOEBUD see shadowy strangers lurking in imagination playground. Their February 2004 demonstration in front of Metro’s RFID-rigged Future Store was intended to raise public awareness of implications of RFID.
"Because spy chips are not destroyed at shop exit, they continue to be readable to any interested party, such as other supermarkets, authorities, or anyone in possession of a reading device (available to general public)... The antennas used for reading are still visible in Future Store, but soon they will be hidden in walls, doorways, railings, at petrol pumps anywhere. And we won't know anymore who is when or why spying on us, watching us, following each of our steps." 1
Freedom is Slavery Dan Mullen would call that an overreaction. Mullen is President of auto-identification consortium AIM Global. He cautions that unrealistic fear can obscure very real benefits of RFID: “Many of concerns expressed by some of advocacy groups are frankly, inflated. The technology can be set up so that identifying information is associated with item, not with people interacting with item. Tracking individuals? That’s not how technology is used."
When asked, “Could it be used that way?” Mullen was doubtful. “I don’t think so. Not at this point. And I don’t see a benefit to anyone.” We ’d like to think he’s right, but someone obviously sees a benefit. RFID has been used exactly that way.
Wal-Mart is one of retailers who have tested photographic “smart shelves” in some of their U.S. stores. The technology did what it was supposed to do — photograph customers who removed tagged items from a display. Unfortunately, Wal-Mart didn’t do what they were supposed to do. Goliath didn’t tell David about camera.