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October 18, 2008
RFID: Convenience or obedience?
Printed in The Boar 7/8/08
An emerging technology is expected to make a “pervasive impact on every aspect of civilization” in the same way the printing press, the industrial revolution, personal computers and the Internet have transformed society. That technology is RFID. If you renewed your passport in the last few years, check the back page. You’ll find a visible Radio-Frequency Identification microchip. You also use RFID technology on a daily basis with your library card, while Londoners participate in a symphony of bleeps using the technology on tubes and buses with their Oyster. But here’s the important bit. RFID chips will soon be embedded in pretty much every consumer product under the sun. And more.
I’ll get the technical bit out of the way. There are two main components to an RFID “tag”. The first is a tiny silicon computer chip that contains a unique identification number. It can be made as small as the full-stop at the end of this sentence. The second is an antenna or “transponder”, typically a flat, metallic coil affixed to a plastic surface. An RFID “reader” emits radio waves searching for tags. When in range the unique number in the chip can be captured and processed and fed back to a database that shares data via the Internet. Larger battery-powered “active” tags are also available, to be used for schemes such as “tax-as-you-drive”.
RFID is more than just a revamped barcode system. Each individual chipped item, rather than each category, is assigned a unique serial number. The idea is that numbers can be captured at the point of sale and recorded with the identity of the purchaser as gleaned from a credit card or shopper card. Also, RFID tags are remotely readable, through people’s clothes, wallets or bags. Anyone with a reader could theoretically frisk you, taking note of the specifics of anything in your possession.
But leave aside the idea of some rogue on the street waving around a wand. Big business has the stated aim of stalking you. The technology giant IBM, heavily invested in RFID, has filed patent applications such as “Identification and Tracking of Persons Using RFID-Tagged Items” in which they detail a method to collect RFID numbers at the cash register and store them in a database. Later, the “exact identity of the person” can be determined from the tags and “used to monitor the movements of the person through the store or other areas.” It goes on to describe how tags could be used to identify a person’s age, race, gender, and income bracket. IBM’s “person tracking unit” is a real-life extension of the kind of rampant target advertising we’re used to on the web. Out of a retail context, IBM stresses the application of such surveillance in “airports, train stations, bus stations, elevators, trains, airplanes, restrooms, sports arenas, libraries, theatres, museums etc.” Hey it’s all part of the “post-9/11” package.
I was first exposed to anti-RFID propaganda in the form of the book Spychips by Katherine Albrecht and Liz McIntyre, subtitled “How major corporations and government plan to track your every move with RFID”. Already familiar with the rather predictable revelations that chipped passports can be hacked and replicated in a matter of hours, as well as the nature of Oyster cards cataloguing Londoners’ journeys for the convenience of increasingly spurious law enforcement, I flicked through the book with weary acknowledgement that the authors’ concerns were justified and their dystopian vision plausible. Later I found a tabloid-sized “RFID Briefing” paper which came free with The Times, sponsored by EPCglobal and the British government. It didn’t do much to propagate a particularly reassuring sentiment. In fact, the paper simply confirmed the claims Spychips made about how far-reaching and pervasive RFID will be, only with a positive spin.
In the foreword to “RFID Briefing”, Stephen Timms, Minister of State for Competiveness and Consumer Affairs, describes the ubiquity of RFID having been ironed into place through “global spectrum harmonisation”: “Government support has played a part, as have market developments like the wal-Mart ‘mandate’ and the US Department of Defense ‘Total Asset Visibility’ programme.” This kind of language articulates the corporatist pregnancy of the RFID project. Big business and big government have teamed up without oversight. Later they disseminate a “Briefing” telling me that full spectrum implementation of RFID is on its way now that “the genuine concerns of employees and consumers have been well articulated”. Did anyone else miss that meeting?
Timms’ reference to the US DoD’s ‘Total Asset Visibility’ recalls another DoD program established in February 2003 – “Total Information Awareness”. It was renamed “Terrorism Information Awareness” the following month, deflecting attention from the reality that all citizens would be targeted. The office was given a $200 million budget to create computer dossiers on 300 million Americans. Here’s the crux of the problem with RFID. It provides our increasingly unaccountable and merged governments and corporations the perfect apparatus for “total information awareness”. The consolidation we have already seen and will continue to see - of personal identity details, health records, bank details, even DNA – will be supplemented with purchase histories and travel histories.
A few years ago I was labelled a conspiracy theorist (see my Two Penn’orth rant) for suggesting that we would soon see a cashless society, or even that interests like IBM desired such a society. Since then, the chief executive of VISA has predicted a cashless society by 2012, while IBM are running ads in which a man roams through a supermarket, stuffing items in his jacket, and walks out only to receive an automated receipt, having passed an RFID scanner. I see Maestro billboards everywhere telling me cash is “dead”. And the “RFID Briefing” I’ve referred to details how RFID “supports the cashless society”. No, I don’t think debit cards are evil. But the point of maintaining cash as an option is the freedom and anonymity guaranteed by its use.
There’s a dominant attitude in establishment circles that is both neurotic and naive: that the way to combat the unpredictable threats of terrorism and fraud is to build such a tightly controlled, surveilled and standardised system that such activity is rendered impossible. Leaving aside the reality that consolidated power structures historically and currently loot and kill more than rogue fraudsters and terrorists, the supposedly ultra-secure technological landscape of RFID is a joke. Observer journalist Henry Porter demonstrated in the program Suspect Nation that the “Verichip” RFID tag for implantation in humans, can be easily replicated. Thus a person’s identity, as it becomes more and more a subjectivity of the state, would be totally at risk even in the most extreme, supposedly inviolable RFID scenario.
A final paragraph traditionally offers solutions. The best I can do, now that the technology is being rolled out incrementally, is to recommend that we monitor RFID before it monitors us. It’s time to generate enough public debate, trickling up to parliamentary and business circles, that we can decide whether we’ve actually got a good deal here. Then we may be able to prevent the initial convenience of the system from sliding into obedience to it.