Conrad Chase, director of Barcelona·s Baja Beach Club,
asked his VIP customers if they wanted a microchip implanted
in their arms, many of them didn·t think twice. After
all, the minuscule chip facilitated unheard-of freedom of
movement, since it could be scanned to reveal a person·s
identification and credit-card information, allowing customers
to leave their wallets and handbags at home. It seemed like
the ultimate form of convenience, and soon clubgoers in Glasgow
and Rotterdam were latching on to the trend. ·I know
many people who want to be implanted,· Chase told CNN
in 2004. ·Almost everybody now has a piercing, tattoos,
or silicone. Why not get the chip and be original?·
later, the subcutaneous chips haven·t yet taken American
club kids by storm, but it seems the remote-sensory technology·called
radio-frequency identification (RFID)·is popping up
everywhere else. The technology, which was largely researched
and developed in Boston, is already being used in EZ Pass
transponders, garage-door openers, and cell phones. Some cities,
including Los Angeles, are making them mandatory for all adopted
pets, and many schools are hailing efforts to embed them in
children·s ID cards. Meanwhile, manufacturers are using
RFID tags, which consist of a flat antenna and an embedded
chip that can be as small as a grain of sand, to track packages
as their goods travel throughout the world.
industry has much bigger plans, and with tag prices dropping
dramatically over the past three years, it·s primed
to explode. An increasing number of retailers want to put
RFID tags on every item in their stores, making manual inventory
and even shoplifting things of the past. The health-care industry
is planning to use RFID to track patients and cut down on
medical errors, the U.S. government wants to put chips in
passports, and the European Union will soon embed the microchips
in its currency. The American company VeriChip is already
selling implantable forms of RFID·like the ones used
in that Barcelona bar·similar to those used to track
will revolutionize our lives and change the way we live,·
says Dr. Peter Harrop, chairman of the RFID consulting company
ID Tech EX, which sponsored an RFID trade show in Boston last
month. Indeed, officials at MIT Auto-ID, a consortium of scientists
and corporations that set up shop seven years ago to develop
modern applications for the technology, say the tiny chips
could one day be used to track every item on Earth.
is keeping mum about when and how all this will unfold, but
it already has privacy advocates scared. They worry that information
contained on RFID chips can be stolen or read remotely. Even
worse, they say, once RFID tags are attached to every item,
humans can potentially be tracked through tags embedded in
the items they carry and wear. The writing is already on the
wall: IBM has filed an RFID-reader patent to track people,
and Gillette has used tags to spy on Wal-Mart customers in
Brockton, Mass. You don·t have to believe in the Mark
of the Beast, as some critics do, to fear this technology·s
invasive and dehumanizing potential.
way to understand radio- frequency identification is that
it is intended to replace the bar code, and it functions in
much the same way. The RFID tag works in conjunction with
a reader that emits radio waves as it searches for tags. Once
a tag and a reader come in contact, the chip broadcasts its
identification number exactly as a bar code does. Unlike bar
codes, however, RFID tags can be read up to 40 feet away by
any compatible reader device. There·s no need to place
a tag directly in front of a reader, and readers can read
multiple tags at once.
As Katherine Albrecht, a consumer advocate and co-author of
Spychips: How Major Corporations and Government Plan to Track
Your Every Move with RFID (Nelson Current, 2005), explains,
a bar code assigns the same SKU number to every product. That
is, each six-pack of beer that is scanned reveals the same
number. But RFID assigns a unique number to each item, which
means that individual beer bottles can be tracked.
important, where bar codes are visible, RFID tags are designed
to be hidden. While many tags are currently placed on the
back sides of shipping labels, manufacturers are working on
ways to embed them in a product·s packaging. As of
now, no law requires anyone to inform the public that the
products you buy might be affixed with RFID tags.
Wal-Mart announced that suppliers must put RFID tags on shipping
pallets sent to its stores, which created an RFID market that
slashed the prices of tags. Today, major corporations and
governments that had previously been unable to afford the
technology are drafting plans to adopt RFID, indicating that
the start of the much-talked-about RFID revolution is under
RFID trade show·Smart Labels USA·held in Boston
last month, industry leaders outlined a future in which home
appliances equipped with RFID could speak to one another.
Washing machines and ovens will eventually preset themselves,
trade-show delegates said, and refrigerators will manage their
own contents by reading tags on food items containing expiration
dates, recipe suggestions, and cooking instructions.
going home, taking out meat, and having the oven read it and
preset the oven,· Geoff Seago, vice-president of marketing
at the Emirates Technical Innovation Center, told fellow trade-show
delegates. Seago says his company has already begun work on
a futuristic supermarket in which all food items will bear
RFID tags that moderate temperature and contain extensive
will allow companies to follow products as they are transported
from manufacturers· headquarters to distribution centers
and stores. And once RFID readers are placed on shelves, they
will manage inventory and reorder items when stock runs low.
Eventually, registers will even scan RFID tags and charge
the items to a store account, eliminating the need for cash
registers, Seago said at the Boston RFID trade show.
readers around a store, trade-show delegates said, customers
could be identified by RFID-embedded technology they are carrying.
They could then be followed remotely as they browse, and the
items they look at and purchase would be recorded and stored
in a database, which marketers could use to target an individual·s
Dubash, director of technology EPC (Electronic Production
Code) at Procter & Gamble/Gillette (the companies merged
in 2005), says that Gillette has already used RFID chips inside
many Braun CruZer packages to ·track when displays
moved from the backroom to the store floor.· The company
uses this information to set up promotions and better sell
will not be limited to retail or home appliances. Representatives
say hospitals will use chips to read a patient·s medical
history and reduce errors; airports will use tags to track
luggage. Pharmaceutical companies plan to use RFID to ensure
that counterfeit items don·t enter the supply chain.
The industry is especially excited about this innovation,
as counterfeit drugs cause thousands of deaths each year,
complaints lodged by privacy advocates, ·RFID is saving
lives, preventing counterfeiting, and increasing security,·
Harrop says. ·People in RFID have a lot to be proud
ndeed, even staunch privacy advocates like Albrecht recognize
the potential for radio-frequency identification technology
and are therefore not urging that RFID tags be banned. ·We·ve
essentially told consumers, ·Go ahead and use RFID
on pallets and other uses,· · says Albrecht.
But eventually, she says, a line should be drawn. For her,
that means ·no item-level tagging and no RFID used
to track people.·
For other privacy advocates, however, the question of where
to draw the line is not as clear. Some opponents would simply
like to be informed that the technology exits, while others
are seeking to drastically curb its uses. Yet the majority
of RFID opponents agree that something needs to be done to
ensure that the technology promising so many benefits will
not be used to invade privacy as well.
·promise great new efficiencies and conveniences, but
[they] also hold the potential to enable the most Orwellian
kinds of surveillance,· Barry Steinhardt, of the American
Civil Liberties Union, said in a 2004 U.S. congressional subcommittee
information session that explored the nature of RFID.
of state senators, privacy groups, and the ACLU have pushed
for legislation to ensure that abuses of the technology will
not occur. Yet so far the industry has been resistant to even
moderate legislative restrictions.
says that manufacturers have not backed RFID legislation because
it is both ·unnecessary· and would hurt the
industry before it is allowed to grow. RFID will not be used
to track individuals as privacy advocates fear, Harrop says,
because the industry has already enacted a number of rules
similar to those that govern the bar code.
rules, established by EPC Global·an outgrowth of the
MIT Auto-ID Center·say that individuals have the right
to ·know when RFID tags are in location and in use,·
to ·have RFID tags deactivated,· and to ·buy
tagged products without having their personal information
linked to the tag number of that product.·
Legislators, who are fearful of allowing the industry to police
itself, have attempted to do little more than codify these
stipulations into law. Still, the RFID industry has resisted.
In 2004, Utah became the first state to try, and fail, to
enact RFID regulations. State legislators attempted to pass
a Right to Know Act based on the EPC Global regulations. The
bill passed the state·s House of Representatives, but
it expired before it was voted on in the Senate.
to rfidbuzz.com, a blog and sounding board, RFID users were
worried about clauses insisting that tags be disabled or removed
at the point of sale. ·Retailers demanded changes to
the bill,· the Web site says, and the bill expired
before changes were made.
may soon be facing a similar situation. In 2004, State Senator
Jarrett Barrios sponsored legislation comparable to that rejected
in Utah. The bill, SB-181, says that consumers have a right
to know about RFID and to have their tags removed before leaving
a store. It also says that consumers must give a retailer
permission to track their purchasing and buying habits.
received a 90-day extension earlier this month, but Barrios·
office is not certain that it will be approved. ·We·re
still fighting for it to be reviewed favorably,· says
Dalie Jiminez, director of special programs for Barrios. ·But
for most people, [RFID] hasn·t hit home yet.·
The opinion of Terry Laine, spokesman for the U.S. Energy
and Commerce Committee, reflects this sentiment. Though one
of its committees held an information session in July 2004
to examine the potential uses and abuses of RFID, it has not
yet proposed any legislation. ·We have a pretty robust
privacy agenda, but I don·t think that RFID is an issue
that at this point has caused a lot of concern,· Laine
are generally unconcerned about RFID because they don·t
know about it yet. And the industry wants to keep it that
Albrecht recalls attending an RFID conference last year where
she proposed a Right to Know Act. ·I have legislation
that is not trying to kill this technology,· she told
an audience of RFID manufacturers. ·All you have to
do is identify that you·re using tags.·
Yet instead of expressing relief that the bill would not limit
the technology, Albrecht says, the crowd grew irritable. ·You
know as well as I do, if you tell the public [about RFID],
then they won·t let you do it,· she recalls
a man saying.
says that the industry is trying to use a Trojan horse to
implement RFID, so that the technology will arrive in our
midst before we have a chance to react. ·By the time
consumers become aware of this technology, there will be nothing
they can do about it,· Albrecht says.
RFID project leader for Tyson Foods, reinforced this idea
during a presentation at last month·s RFID conference.
·If you want the technology to become ubiquitous, you
must get it to the consumer in a form they think they can·t
live without,· he said.
points out that consumers have often responded in such a way.
Cell phones and credit cards are currently tracking our movements
and purchases, yet ·I·ve never heard of privacy
groups ever giving a damn about it,· he says.
meanwhile, maintains that the RFID industry has good reason
to keep quiet about its plans. She points to a 2001 IBM patent
application that outlines the company·s intention to
track people in public places.
patent, IBM explains how it will identify people using the
RFID tags that a person is already bearing·in a package
they·re carrying, say, or embedded in a garment or
a shoe. Once IBM has determined a person·s identity,
it will track him or her around a store and record his or
her shopping habits. This information will be used to ·provide
targeted advertising to the person as the person roams.·
The patent also suggests that this same tracking method can
be carried out in public spaces. Readers can be placed in
·shopping malls, airports, train stations, bus stations,
elevators, trains, airplanes, restrooms, sports arenas, libraries,
theaters, museums, etc.,· it says.
are frequently written to cover all potential uses of a technology,
so it does not necessarily indicate that IBM is planning to
track people. Still, the patent undermines frequent industry
assertions that the technology will not·and even cannot·be
used to track individuals.
Wal-Mart, Gillette, and Procter & Gamble have already
been caught surreptitiously spying on consumers. In 2003,
a Wal-Mart in Brockton, Mass., was found to have installed
a ·smart shelf· that held RFID-tagged razors.
When a package was removed from the shelf, the tag in the
box triggered a hidden camera that snapped the customer·s
picture. That same year, a similar scheme occurred in Broken
Arrow, Okla., with packages of Lipfinity Lipstick.
stories have validated many privacy advocates· concerns
and hastened them to further action. In July 2004, Steinhardt
told members of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce
that RFID, along with computers, GPS, biometrics, and sensors,
is ·feeding what can be described as a surveillance
monster that is growing silently in our midst.·
·The fact is, there are no longer any technical barriers
to the creation of the surveillance society,· Steinhardt
said. If the technology is allowed to develop and IBM·s
patent is approved, this may certainly be true.
senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation
(EFF), agrees. The EFF ·would admit that . . . because
there aren·t many RFID readers in the social environment,
it·s not right now a major threat,· he says.
·But the problem is, we see the technology moving very
quickly . . . therefore, the possibility of tracking personal
info is going to increase.·
Still, Peter Harrop says that RFID will not become Big Brother.
He maintains that RFID won·t diminish privacy any more
than other technologies have. You have to consider how little
privacy there already is, he says. ·If you·ve
taken out a [shopper·s loyalty] card, stores like Wal-Mart
already know a frighteningly lot about you.·
In fact, it·s remarkable how much consumer information
Wal-Mart already has. According to a Nov. 14, 2004, article
in The New York Times, Wal-Mart·which collects information
at its cash registers·has 460 tetrabytes of data digitally
stored at its Bentonville, Arkansas, headquarters. ·To
put that into perspective, the Internet has less than half
as much data,· the article says.
of the Internet, cell phones, and various other technologies
has shown us just how easy it now is to collect and store
consumer information. And there are a number of companies
that currently specialize in consolidating such data.
have a massive personal-information superhighway in this country,·
says the EFF·s Tien. ·There·s this giant
infrastructure that collects, buys, and sells your info. Even
if there weren·t a single RFID, they·d be doing
Still, Tien says that a consumer·s current lack of
privacy should not be a justification for its continued erosion.
·It·s a mistake in attitude or approach to say,
·Well, because we·ve already given up stuff,
we should give up more,· · he says.
consumer privacy is already limited, Tien says, it·s
diminishing in a relatively controlled environment. Privacy
invasion today ·is taking place in a setting where
you are aware of it, and you know who you·re exchanging
info with, and to some extent you·re making a choice
about doing so, versus having no choice and not having any
knowledge,· he says.
may be tracking us, for instance, but the Federal Trade Commission
prohibits cell-phone companies from releasing, sharing, or
selling one·s personal information or whereabouts,
Tien says. In other words, the cell-phone industry ·is
not the Wild West,· he says, ·whereas with location
trackers like RFID, there are as of yet no base-line privacy
In the meantime, the RFID industry is carrying out its plans
to tag and track the world. And the public is still largely
of challenges remain, but it·s only a matter of time
before the tag line for RFID. . . evolves from technology
of the future to business as usual,· IBM recently wrote
on its Web site. Once the public realizes what·s at
stake, RFID might already be upon us.
as usual· could mean it·s already too late.
Czarnecki is a freelance writer living in Boston. This story
first appeared in the Boston Phoenix.