Al Diablito aldiablito@hotmail.com
Thu, 16 Jan 2003 12:57:30 -0500

This one has all the Revelations/Christian Apocalypse crowd all excited as 
they see it as evidence that "the end is nigh", because it implies the "Mark 
of The Beast".  Personally, I think the in-store/out-of-store aspect is the 
key issue.

RFID tags: Big Brother in small packages
By Declan McCullagh
January 13, 2003, 6:26 AM PT

Could we be constantly tracked through our clothes, shoes or even our cash 
in the future?
I'm not talking about having a microchip surgically implanted beneath your 
skin, which is what Applied Digital Systems of Palm Beach, Fla., would like 
to do. Nor am I talking about John Poindexter's creepy Total Information 
Awareness spy-veillance system, which I wrote about last week.

Instead, in the future, we could be tracked because we'll be wearing, eating 
and carrying objects that are carefully designed to do so.

The generic name for this technology is RFID, which stands for radio 
frequency identification. RFID tags are miniscule microchips, which already 
have shrunk to half the size of a grain of sand. They listen for a radio 
query and respond by transmitting their unique ID code. Most RFID tags have 
no batteries: They use the power from the initial radio signal to transmit 
their response.

You should become familiar with RFID technology because you'll be hearing 
much more about it soon. Retailers adore the concept, and CNET News.com's 
own Alorie Gilbert wrote last week about how Wal-Mart and the U.K.-based 
grocery chain Tesco are starting to install "smart shelves" with networked 
RFID readers. In what will become the largest test of the technology, 
consumer goods giant Gillette recently said it would purchase 500 million 
RFID tags from Alien Technology of Morgan Hill, Calif.

Alien Technology won't reveal how it charges for each tag, but industry 
estimates hover around 25 cents. The company does predict that in quantities 
of 1 billion, RFID tags will approach 10 cents each, and in lots of 10 
billion, the industry's holy grail of 5 cents a tag.

It becomes unnervingly easy to imagine a scenario where everything you buy 
that's more expensive than a Snickers will sport RFID tags, which typically 
include a 64-bit unique identifier yielding about 18 thousand trillion 
possible values. KSW-Microtec, a German company, has invented washable RFID 
tags designed to be sewn into clothing. And according to EE Times, the 
European central bank is considering embedding RFID tags into banknotes by 

It becomes unnervingly easy to imagine a scenario where everything you buy 
that's more expensive than a Snickers will sport RFID tags.
That raises the disquieting possibility of being tracked though our personal 
possessions. Imagine: The Gap links your sweater's RFID tag with the credit 
card you used to buy it and recognizes you by name when you return. Grocery 
stores flash ads on wall-sized screens based on your spending patterns, just 
like in "Minority Report." Police gain a trendy method of constant, 
cradle-to-grave surveillance.

You can imagine nightmare legal scenarios that don't involve the cops. 
Future divorce cases could involve one party seeking a subpoena for RFID 
logs--to prove that a spouse was in a certain location at a certain time. 
Future burglars could canvass alleys with RFID detectors, looking for RFID 
tags on discarded packaging that indicates expensive electronic gear is 
nearby. In all of these scenarios, the ability to remain anonymous is 

Don't get me wrong. RFID tags are, on the whole, a useful development and a 
compelling technology. They permit retailers to slim inventory levels and 
reduce theft, which one industry group estimates at $50 billion a year. With 
RFID tags providing economic efficiencies for businesses, consumers likely 
will end up with more choices and lower prices. Besides, wouldn't it be 
handy to grab a few items from store shelves and simply walk out, with the 
purchase automatically debited from your (hopefully secure) RFID'd credit 

The privacy threat comes when RFID tags remain active once you leave a 
store. That's the scenario that should raise alarms--and currently the RFID 
industry seems to be giving mixed signals about whether the tags will be 
disabled or left enabled by default.

In an interview with News.com's Gilbert last week, Gillette Vice President 
Dick Cantwell said that its RFID tags would be disabled at the cash register 
only if the consumer chooses to "opt out" and asks for the tags to be turned 
off. "The protocol for the tag is that it has built in opt-out function for 
the retailer, manufacturer, consumer," Cantwell said.

Wal-Mart, on the other hand, says that's not the case. When asked if 
Wal-Mart will disable the RFID tags at checkout, company spokesman Bill 
Wertz told Gilbert: "My understanding is that we will."

Cantwell asserts that there's no reason to fret. "At this stage of the game, 
the tag is no good outside the store," he said. "At this point in time, the 
tag is useless beyond the store shelf. There is no value and no harm in the 
tag outside the distribution channel. There is no way it can be read or that 
(the) data would be at all meaningful to anyone." That's true as far as it 
goes, but it doesn't address what might happen if RFID tags and readers 
become widespread.

If the tags stay active after they leave the store, the biggest privacy 
worries depend on the range of the RFID readers. There's a big difference 
between tags that can be read from an inch away compared to dozens or 
hundreds of feet away.

The privacy threat comes when RFID tags remain active once you leave a 
For its part, Alien Technology says its RFID tags can be read up to 15 feet 
away. "When we talk about the range of these tags being 3 to 5 meters, 
that's a range in free space," said Tom Pounds, a company vice president. 
"That's optimally oriented in front of a reader in free space. In fact if 
you put a tag up against your body or on a metal Rolex watch in free space, 
the read range drops to zero."

But what about a more powerful RFID reader, created by criminals or police 
who don't mind violating FCC regulations? Eric Blossom, a veteran radio 
engineer, said it would not be difficult to build a beefier transmitter and 
a more sensitive receiver that would make the range far greater. "I don't 
see any problem building a sensitive receiver," Blossom said. "It's 
well-known technology, particularly if it's a specialty item where you're 
willing to spend five times as much."

Privacy worries also depend on the size of the tags. Matrics of Columbia, 
Md., said it has claimed the record for the smallest RFID tag, a flat square 
measuring 550 microns a side with an antenna that varies between half an 
inch long to four inches by four inches, depending on the application. 
Without an antenna, the RFID tag is about the size of a flake of pepper.

Matrics CEO Piyush Sodha said the RFID industry is still in a state of 
experimentation. "All of the customers are participating in a phase of 
extensive field trials," Sodha said. "Then adoption and use in true business 
practices will happen...Those pilots are only going to start early this 

To the credit of the people in the nascent RFID industry, these trials are 
allowing them to think through the privacy concerns. An MIT-affiliated 
standards group called the Auto-ID Center said in an e-mailed statement to 
News.com that they have "designed a kill feature to be built into every 
(RFID) tag. If consumers are concerned, the tags can be easily destroyed 
with an inexpensive reader. How this will be executed i.e. in the home or at 
point of sale is still being defined, and will be tested in the third phase 
of the field test."

If you care about privacy, now's your chance to let the industry know how 
you feel. (And, no, I'm not calling for new laws or regulations.) Tell them 
that RFID tags are perfectly acceptable inside stores to track pallets and 
crates, but that if retailers wish to use them on consumer goods, they 
should follow four voluntary guidelines.

First, consumers should be notified--a notice on a checkout receipt would 
work--when RFID tags are present in what they're buying. Second, RFID tags 
should be disabled by default at the checkout counter. Third, RFID tags 
should be placed on the product's packaging instead of on the product when 
possible. Fourth, RFID tags should be readily visible and easily removable.

Given RFID's potential for tracking your every move, is that too much to 

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