One of our more troubled readers — no longer with us because he’s off trying to start his own blog full of panache and style, if not content — frequently worries about the location of “the semen-stained dress.”
Thanks to Wal-Mart, we’ll soon never lose another dress…or the person who wears it.
This month’s CSO: The Resource for Security Executives notes that
During the next year, hundreds of companies will be forced to deploy technology for automatically tracking the movement of consumer goods using radio waves. Radio frequency identification (RFID) technology has been mandated by both the U.S. Department of Defense and — perhaps more important — Wal-Mart. — Garfinkel, “What’s Your Frequency?” (May 2004) CSO: The Resource for Security Executives, p. 55. [Emphasis added.]
RFID uses low-powered transmitters so small they can be sewn right into the fabric of clothing. These devices are capable of sitting, quiescent, until you walk within 1 inch to 100 feet of a reader. The most common use is to track assets or manage inventory. RFID tags can also contain additional information — they’re used, for example, to tag sheep with information about blood lines, date of birth and shot records.
And now Wal-Mart has insisted that manufacturers put these tags into every item they manufacture.
The data store on a 13.56-MHz tag is large enough to contain routing information for the shipping container and a detailed inventory of the products inside. — Brewin, “Radio Frequency Identification,” ComputerWorld (online).
Or information on the name, address and other identifying information of consumers who purchase items laced with RDIF? Wal-Mart, who once sued an elderly woman for her Social Security payments to recover some of their costs after they ran over her with a fork-lift (Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Keel (2002) 817 So.2d 1; 2002 La. LEXIS 969), would surely never stoop so low, would they? They couldn’t do that, could they?
While most RDIF tags currently in use are “write once, read many” devices — meaning the information is imprinted at the time of manufacture and is not modifiable afterwards — there are RDIF tags that can be imprinted with fresh information. With the proper devices at each purchasing terminal (e.g., “cash register”) it would be possible to imprint tags hidden in your clothing with information about who you are, where you live and anything else available to the checker. Perhaps if you pay for the item with cash, it would be easier to avoid this, but if you pay by credit card or use a store discount “club” card the checker has your personal information in hand. And suppose you mostly buy using cash and without a “club” card, but one time, you didn’t? It shouldn’t be too difficult to read the clothes you’re wearing which you purchased with a credit or “club” card, while you stand in front of the cashier waiting to pay cash for your new clothes, and transfer information from the clothes you’re wearing to the new clothing. And then…
Indelible tags sewn into clothing or embedded in the soles of shoes would make it possible to track consumers as they enter or leave stores. Readers on store shelves could alert whenever a consumer picks up expensive merchandise — perhaps automatically snapping a picture [or reading their identity from their clothes] if someone gets too many razors at once. Tags on books or magazines would identify what a person is reading by scanning his briefcase or backpack. Tags on banknotes would enable a mugger to figure out who is carrying large amounts of cash. — Garfinkel, supra, at p. 56.
Think this sounds paranoid?
It’s tempting to dismiss these scenarios as ravings from unsophisticated technophobes. Don’t. The glaring mis-uses of RFID technology previously mentioned were first brought up not by privacy activists, but by the RFID industry itself. — Garfinkel, supra, at p. 56.
Some 6 million Americans are already familiar with RFID technology, although they may not realize it. Cars equipped with RFID transponders allow consumers to pull into a gas station, fill up and never so much as remove a credit card from their wallet. And guess what?
[T]ransit authorities in several cities use E-ZPass tags as a way to measure traffic flow. In other words, people are reading the RFID in your car without your knowledge. — Newitz, “Wearing a Wire” (May 6, 2003) Alternet.org. [Emphasis added.]
Remember the scene in Back to the Future II where Marty McFly (played by Michael J. Fox) is walking down the street and the commercials adapt to his presence? This is one of the more innocuous realities made possible by RFID; but it also demonstrates how easy it is to recognize that you are you as you pass by. Surely the government would never monitor ordinary, non-criminal citizens!
Oh? Cities from Honolulu to Miami are currently using cameras to watch citizens 24 hours a day. In Honolulu,
The cameras are mounted on utility poles, and a camera operator watching a video monitor at a police substation can zoom in and out, rotate a camera 360 degrees and even look straight down[.] — Gonser, “Security cameras under repair” (March 5, 2004) Honolulu Advertiser.
And The Miami Herald reports that,
One of the nation’s richest towns has decided to digitally record the license plate of every car that meanders through its small stretch of mansions on the Palm Beach County coast and to run an automatic background check on each driver. — Bierman, “Just passing through? In this town, the cameras will know” (April 24, 2004) The Miami Herald. [Emphasis added.]
Combine that with RFID technology now being built into nearly every new automobile (16 million vehicles have this feature today) and you get a lot more than instant background checks on every driver — RFID technology could be used to disable the automobile by changing the RFID code in the ignition system. And for those who have no problems with the government keeping tabs on all people within our geographic reach twenty-four-by-seven, don’t forget that the same technology would be within the reach of criminals. Imagine being out in the middle of a deserted area in the middle of the night when someone disables your car’s ignition system.
These applications are only the tip of the iceberg. Do you think periodic drug testing is intrusive? Employers in the private sector — who are not bound by constitutional restrictions the way some governments (theoretically) are — have utilized RFID for such functions as monitoring the number of calories consumed by their employees versus the amount of exercise the employee has gotten.
Privacy activists, such as the Electronic Frontier Federation, which has a section on RFID have noted this massive potential for invasion of privacy. And I’m pointing out the potential for government monitoring of citizens’ activities. Peace Fresno won’t have to worry about the sheriff’s department infiltrating their group when they can easily be tracked by the clothes they wear and the cars they drive. Fashion Fair’s guards could be alerted to their presence the minute they step on the property by RFID tags hidden in the shoes they bought from manufacturers who bowed to Wal-Mart’s demands.
Garfinkel notes that California has legislation pending which would require businesses selling consumer goods to kill item-level RFID tags at check-out — similar to what happens now when security devices are removed from clothing at the purchase point. But as Garfinkel’s article points out,
The problem with the “all tags must die” approach, says Henry Holtzman, a research scientist at the MIT Media Lab, is that tags on stolen property won’t be killed. That means that having an item on your body containing a live tag might be taken as circumstantial evidence that you are a shoplifter. It’s not hard to imagine police walking the sidewalks in some neighborhoods with high-powered RFID readers, searching for anybody giving off the right signals. And it’s not hard to imagine anti-RFID activists going into stores and killing every tag they can find with covert tools. — Garfinkel, supra, at p. 58.
Nor is it difficult to imagine the police using RFID readers simply to identify and run background checks on everyone passing a particular ad hoc security checkpoint. It’s the next-best-thing to Minority Report.
RFID technology is here to stay. In reality, it’s been available for decades. But never has it been as cheap, ubiquitous and potentially threatening as it is today, in an era where the USA PATRIOT Act and other legislation that strips restrictions from governmental spying on citizens is increasingly viewed as normal and beneficial by a government that views each of its citizens as potential miscreants or, worse, enemies. Unless citizens are aware of the issues outlined in this article, they cannot act responsibly to deal with it.
So what do you do? The threat to privacy is very real, but is accentuated by the absence of government regulations limiting the use of RFID technology. What needs to happen is for concerned citizens to write their congressional representatives and express their concerns. Don’t sit back and wait until it’s too late. Stores like Wal-Mart, who consider you not so much as customers as cash cows, are ready and waiting to say, “Tag, you’re it!”