Editor's Blog: Rik Fears the RFID Privacy Invasion

Editor's Blog: Rik Fears the RFID Privacy Invasion


I'm as patriotic as the next guy, but in a couple of ways I'm positively un-American. For example, I've never set foot inside a Wal-Mart, never eaten a McDonald's hamburger, and never signed up for any supermarket's "club card." The first is because I believe big-box stores are destroying small-town America's main-street shops, and the second is because I'm a snooty foodie. My recalcitrance to add my shopping habits to some corporate database, however, is more complicated - but it's based on the simple fact that I'm a privacy junkie. Unfortunately, it's about to get a lot harder for me to keep my personal information personal.


Why? Because of an acronym that's rapidly worming its intrusive way into all of our daily lives: RFID. Short for radio-frequency identification, RFID systems include a tiny transponder that can be embedded into ... well ... practically anything, and a sensor that can read the information carried by that transponder. The information encoded in RFID transponders can be read passively, meaning that if you have one embedded in your MasterCard, for example, all the information stored in it can be read without you even knowing that it has been accessed. These "no-swipe" credit cards may radically increase the possibility of identity theft, raising the ire of observers such as Senator Charles Schumer of the Senate Banking Committee.


What rankles privacy advocates such as myself are the more Orwellian aspects of RFID technology, such as the fact that they can be used quite effectively as location trackers. A recent CNET article about the Department of Homeland Security's Real ID program reports that "A radio frequency identification (RFID) tag is under consideration." With an RFID-enabled Real ID card in your possession, strategically placed sensors could track your every move. Now, call me paranoid (if you haven't done so already...), but I'd rather not have Big Brother keeping an eye on my peregrinations.


How tiny can RFID transponders be? A couple of weeks ago, Hitachi unveiled a prototype of an RFID chip that's a mere 0.05 by 0.05 millimeters - think talcum-powder-size - and that can store and transmit a 38-digit I.D. number. The truly paranoid (raise your hands, now) can imagine anti-government protestors being "dusted" by these micro RFIDs and tracked at leisure. I'm certainly not implying that such skullduggery will happen - I'm just saying that it can happen.


RFIDs certainly have their legitimate uses - inventory-tracking, for example - but even the most innocuous uses have their trade-offs. For example, many states have an RFID-based drive-through toll-paying system for bridges and turnpikes - here in California it's called FasTrack. Thanks to my far-less-uptight-than-me wife, we have a FasTrack transponder on our Mini Cooper - and now some database somewhere knows that I visited my folks across the San Mateo bridge last Saturday, then drove back across the Dumbarton Bridge to catch my daughter's rugby game at Stanford. I can come up with no reasonable reason as to why my comings and goings being monitored should give me pause, but I'm willing to admit - albeit sheepishly - that it does.


That's the problem with being a privacy junkie - you can feel mighty silly sometimes.


But still...




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Great blog! I don't think enough people even talk about this stuff to realize how it might affect them. Many people just take it as progress and move on. Only when it is too late to turn back the clock will people realize we should have done something to protect our privacy now.

I read something interesting the other day. Around 100 years ago a supreme court justice wrote a ruling that made it illegal (citing privacy concerns) to take someone's photograph without their permission. Before this time you had to sit still for many minutes in order for the camera to capture your image. Now, think about how often your picture is taken today without your permission... cameras, video surveillance, traffic cams, toll booth cams, tourist photos, etc.



The Camel's nose is already in the tent. You have touched on a most improtant concern of mine. Big Brother will take over every aspect of our lives if given the opportunity. Let's put RFID chips in our Senators, CEO's, School teachers, Police, IRS agents, Hollowood stars and such. Maybe we have the same right to know where they go, what they spend their "our" money on etc. I'm no respector of persons. Let us spread it around and see witch way the wind blows.


AA Grad

I remember reading a newspaper story once about a guy who was denied health insurance because his supermarket club card records showed that he bought a lot of booze. I can't verfy that story, but that's what it said.



Why are you paranoid? I suggest that everyone is to some degree. Looking back over millenia it was probably a very good thing in terms of ones long term survival to be just a little paranoid. Your last comment, "I can come up with no reasonable reason as to why my comings and goings being monitored should give me pause, but I'm willing to admit - albeit sheepishly - that it does." in some way goes to affirm this. An intrinsic unhappiness about being observed could be simply defined by the fact that the observer, from our racial memory, generally wanted to kill you.



Um, I don't know how to say this but here it goes. No one is tracking your personal movements or eating habits. You are not being singled out from the millions of people who are being tracked. You're not interesting enough.

This data exists to collect information on the masses not the individual. Could someone fesably track your car rides and grocery habits? Sure, but why would they? They don't know you and most likely don't even live in the same state as you. What benifit is it to know that John Smith eats a lot of Cap'n Crunch? Your information is just not special enough to warrant individual scrutiny. Maybe if you were charged with an henious crime they'll track down your information. Until then, there's nothing to worry about.



No "heinous crime" is required. For example, you and your spouse are in an ugly divorce proceeding. To prove you were visiting your girlfriend, she subpoenas the toll bridge records of your travels on specific dates.

Or, your employer fires you and you file for unemployment compensation. To prove you were not where you say you were, doing your job, your former employer subpoenas the toll bridge records of your travels on specific dates.

Or, a demonstration against NAFTA is held in your community, and the local police decide to see who might have come in from the suburbs to participate - those toll bridge records of your travels make you a "person of interest" in that "investigation."


Mr. Orwell


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