The Coming Privacy Storm Over RFID Chips
by Mike Banks Valentine ęCopyright 2004
Consumers are being tracked, catalogued surveilled and their
"data" is being warehoused, filed and mapped with increasing
detail. This is happening without our knowledge or consent.
This invasive spying is currently confined to loading docks
at WalMart, Target and Metro Future stores, but is ready to
follow you home if you aren't careful about RFID technology.
RFID stands for Radio Frequency Identification and is a term
that will become increasingly well known as usage of the new
technology becomes pervasive. There is no question that the
tiny chips, which enable tracking of physical goods from the
assembly line to warehouse to retail outlet to checkstand,
will replace the barcodes previously used for that purpose.
Some RFID chips are so tiny, they are nearly indistiguishable
from dust in many cases. Photo link:
These dust sized RFID chips are capable of transmitting their
own SKU (Sales Keeping Unit), the same info currently encoded
in barcodes, distances of up to 20 feet to an "RFID Reader".
But that's not all these diminuitive little chips can do. They
are capable of sending a unique serial number that can identify
the item it's embedded in - down to it's date and location of
manufacture. Barcodes were limited to carrying information that
identified classes of products. RFID carries information
equivalent to the product DNA, while allowing a number for
every item on the planet!
When that item passes an "RFID reader" at the manufacturer's
door, the tracking system knows the item has passed out of the
building. Another reader signals that it has now passed into a
train or plane to be shipped to a warehouse, where another
reader tracks arrival and storage information, then successive
readers know it passes to truck, grocery shelf, retail check-
stand and out the door. All of this can now be accomplished
without opening containers, leading to huge cost savings
throughout the "supply chain".
Privacy issues don't arise until consumers link that chain.
Walmart is now REQUIRING their 100 largest suppliers to use
RFID tags at the pallet level. Meaning that those tags are
currently in use to identify and track groups of products as
they arrive at the Walmart warehouse up until shelving at the
giant retailer. Some products, such as Gillette razors, had
been testing individual item tracking up until final sale
and removal from the Walmart store. Privacy advocates slowed
that practice by launching a boycott of Gillette.
If the privacy concerns over tracking of a single product
through the store to sale caused slowing of implementation
of this technology, what can we expect when EVERY product
is RFID tagged? There is no doubt this is coming and not in
the distant future, but within the next 5 years or so. The
US Department of Defense is now requiring ALL vendors to use
RFID technology and embed tags in products sold to the US
military by next year.
Clearly there will be little or no outcry from military and
government personnel about privacy invading technology since
government is rarely expected to respect privacy "in-house".
But if all military vendors are compelled to use RFID chips
in every item used in every one of the millions of supplies
sold to and used by the military - by next year, 2005 - then
there is little doubt that the entire US goverment will soon
implement this same policy for all items purchased by Uncle
Sam and used by government employees.
More and more giant retailers like Walmart are requiring
suppliers to use RFID technology. The German chain Metro
Group, which operates 2300 stores in Europe and Asia has
demanded the same of their suppliers. Metro Group has gone
even further with RFID to operate what they call the "Store
of the future" where shoppers needn't remove items from
shopping carts to pay for them. They simply pass by RFID
readers and all items will be tallied and paid for. Metro
stores provide RFID tagged "loyalty cards" to consumers
that identifies those shoppers by reading within purses
and wallets as those consumers enter and leave any of the
2300 Metro stores.
> Business Week Article on
Metro Future Stores Protest
Target Stores announced this month that they too, would be
requiring suppliers to RFID tag at the pallet and case level
Privacy loving Americans may not stand for the "Big Brother"
implications of a system like that used by the German retail
chain. An anti-RFID web site has been launched by privacy
advocates and named "Spychips" for the ability of the chips
to track consumers and link their buying habits to other
personally identifiable information.
A recent piece by technology commentator Jeffrey Harrow has
a chilling description of how RFID technology might betray
consumers movements and link their buying habits in a huge
database. Harrow is a consultant and analyst of emerging
technology. He often comments on privacy implications related
to implementation of emerging technology.
Harrow paints a harrowing picture of RFID readers.
"The issue is that these many sensors . . . would also note
the passing of your car key's unique ID; the unique ID of your
driver's license, and even the unique ID of each and every
dollar bill in your wallet. ... And if all the chains' main
computers and those of smaller stores made this mass of random
information available to say, a Marketing firm, or to other
stores along your path (for a fee, of course), or to a
government organization upon demand, then a very detailed
picture of "You" - your travel habits, your spending habits
(remember those individually tagged dollar bills?), almost
everything about you, could be mixed, matched and dissected
in ways that you might, or might not, agree with. This might
be the ultimate "data mining" warehouse."
> Harrow Technology Report
RFID is publicly discussed only by technology enthusiasts
like Harrow and a few privacy advocates concerned about the
implications of that "data mining warehouse". But as those
RFID chips supplant barcodes over the next couple of years,
we'll be hearing from privacy advocates when the Big Brother
implications become clearer to consumers. Mark your calendar
for early in 2005 and prepare to weather the coming storm of
privacy concerns that could reach hurricane proportions.
Mike Banks Valentine is a web journalist covering privacy
issues where you can learn about
Automotive Event Data Recorders or EDR's, Computer SpyWare,
Identity Theft, Surveillance, HIPAA, COPPA, TIA, GLB and
privacy implications of the USA Patriot Act.