- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 24, 2004

The new $20 bills may char when microwaved, but that doesn’t mean tiny tracking chips are embedded in Andrew Jackson’s right eye, as an urban myth circulating on the Internet maintains.

Reports of Americans microwaving $20 bills to destroy the chip prompted AIM North America, a trade association for radio frequency identification chip (RFID) manufacturers, to test the notion and declare it a fallacy.

It also said that wrapping bills in aluminum foil “to foil” the technology, as some metal detector operators have noticed people doing, is unnecessary.

The Internet myth exemplifies a public mistrust of RFID chips and other surveillance technology. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat and ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, says these fears have merit.

Mr. Leahy, in a keynote address this week at the “Video Surveillance: Legal and Technological Challenges” conference at the Georgetown University Law Center, called RFID chips “bar codes on steroids.”

Use of the technology raises “exciting possibilities, but they also raise potentially troubling tangents,” Mr. Leahy said.

“While it may be a good idea for a retailer to use RFID chips to manage its inventory, we would not want a retailer to put those tags on goods for sale without consumers’ knowledge, without knowing how to deactivate them, and without knowing what information will be collected and how it will be used,” Mr. Leahy said.

Wal-Mart conducted “clandestine tests” that allowed researchers 750 miles away “to watch consumers in action” when lipstick packages tagged with the chips triggered nearby surveillance cameras, Mr. Leahy said.

The inexpensive chips contain an antenna that signals identification or location information to a nearby reader and are being used to track merchandise and inventory. The Defense Department last week announced that IBM will help prepare its 43,000 suppliers to tag everything from weapons to food by January.

The European Central Bank has plans to tag paper money with the RFIDs beginning next year to stop counterfeiters.

Mr. Leahy said the U.S. government abused the public trust by secretly using commercial passenger data to test new screening technology.

“I want to make sure that mistakes like those are not repeated, especially with RFID technology,” said Mr. Leahy, who called for public discussions on how the technology will be used in the marketplace and by the government.

“While we might want the Pentagon to be able to manage its supplies with RFID tags, we would not want an al Qaeda operative to find out about our resources by simply using a hidden RFID scanner in a war situation,” he said.

The Utah House of Representatives last month passed the Radio Frequency Identification Right to Know Act to require labeling on all products that carry the chips. In California, lawmakers are considering legislation to put a fire wall between private information and data collected by the chips to prevent mass-marketing schemes.

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