- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 23, 2003

Many people believe that technology is a tool that mankind uses as it sees fit. A wiser view holds that we are the tools of technology. This is true, perhaps, with radio frequency identification (RFID). Intended for innocuous purposes, such as prevention of shoplifting, it is a police state in waiting.
The principle is simple. A tiny microchip, smaller than a grain of sand, acts as transmitter and receiver. When it comes into range of an RFID reader, it transmits an identification number encoded in the silicon. It needs no batteries. Its power is extracted from the signal of the reader. In huge quantities, the chips would cost 5 cents.
This is not science fiction. RFID chips are being manufactured.
According to CNET News, Gillette Co. will buy 500 million of the chips from Alien Technology Corp. in California. Wal-Mart is set to use them for inventory control.
Harmless uses can be imagined by the dozen. For example, instead of standing in line at the department store, a reader could read the RFID tag of the items you wanted to buy, as well as the RFID tag in your credit card. The purchase would be automatically charged to your account. Right now, you can have an RFID chip implanted under your skin, linked to medical records in a database on the Internet. If you are hurt, medics can almost instantly access your medical information. Europeans are considering putting the chips in bank notes.
None of this is evil. The most dangerous things usually aren't. But what happens if a chip linkable to you gets embedded in your sweater when you buy it?
Convenience and profitability are overpowering forces. The danger is that, with the present and growing ease of electronic networking, tags could easily be used to track you everywhere. RFID readers currently can read a tag at about 15 feet. You have no way of knowing that it is being done. Readers with longer ranges are possible, according to experts. Add to this the capacity today for networking huge amounts of information via the Internet, and you have the ingredients for undetectable nationwide observation of almost everything one does.
Suppose that some government agency, the Department of Homeland Security, for instance, has access to Wal-Mart's records. You are now radio-tagged, so to speak. If the chips migrated to credit cards, as would seem likely, you would be radio-tagged multiple times. A credit card today leaves no record unless you use it. With RFID chips, you could be identified any time you walked near a reader. To fight terrorism, readers are likely to be required first at airports and governmental buildings, then bus stations, then subways.
An additional problem is that RFID tags are so small that it will be very difficult to know whether you are carrying one. A speck of dirt on your car could hide one. Every time you drove through a tollgate or past a stoplight equipped with a reader (to catch speeders, of course), you would become a datum.
What legal protections will we have? Few, probably, given the rapid increase in federal police powers. Right now, a cop doesn't need a warrant to stand on the corner and look at your license plate as you drive by. Doing it electronically is legally the same, the argument will be made. You can have no expectation of privacy when walking in the city, it will be said.
If the government's Total Information Awareness computerized tracking system becomes reality, the computer capacity will be put in place. The TIA program, designed to combat terrorism, can monitor daily personal transactions by tracking the use of passports, driver's licenses, credit cards, and the like.
How paranoid is this? Technically, tracking is easy. It's fairly cheap. And major store chains are planning to use RFID. Would the government use it to spy on us?
A judgment call. Don't be wrong.



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