Cybereye | Dont panic yet, but think hard about RFID uses

William Jackson

Wisconsin's Gov. Jim Doyle in May signed into law an act making it illegal to forcibly implant an electronic tag in someone.

It says, 'No person may require an individual to undergo the implanting of a microchip.' Violators can be fined up to $10,000 a day.

Yes, it is easy to make fun of this'critics of radio frequency identification can come across as rather shrill. The concerns of state Rep. Marlin D. Schneider, who introduced the bill, seem a little, well, out there. He speaks of 'an insidious technology which could track, monitor and potentially control people's thoughts.'

Similarly, a book on the subject is titled Spychips: How Major Corporations and Government Plan to Track your Every Move with RFID.

RFID, as it is used now, promises far more benefits than problems. But maybe it is not too early to begin a debate on a technology that is becoming more widespread, versatile and powerful.

RFID uses a small radio transponder to identify the holder. Many of us use it every day at toll plazas, subways and offices. It's convenient because the radios can be read at distances of several inches to several feet and do not have to be inserted into a reader.

The other shoe

But convenience cuts both ways. Being able to read RFID tags remotely also means that the holder has less control over who is reading it, when and for what purposes. Hence the privacy concerns. How valid these concerns are depends on the kind of technology used, how it is tied to the holder and the amount of information it conveys.

RFID shows great promise in inventory control applications. The Defense Department is using it to help streamline and manage its behemoth logistics operations. Although some security questions have been raised, there probably are no privacy concerns about this type of application.

At the retail level, RFID could replace or complement bar codes as a way to tag individual items. Here is where civil libertarians begin to get concerned. When a credit card is used to purchase an RFID-tagged product, the tag could be associated with the individual. If not disabled, it could be used for personal tracking.

More problematic is VeriChip Corp. of Delray Beach, Fla., which has received FDA approval for an implantable chip that could be used to ID and track individuals remotely. The company has announced that nearly 100 hospitals and more than 200 doctors have signed up to use its VeriMed Patient ID system.

This could provide a persistent, uniquely identifiable replacement for the plastic bracelets used in most hospitals. The company also promotes the use of its implantable chips for controlling access to secure facilities.

These are not necessarily bad things. But history clearly demonstrates two disturbing trends:
  • Once a useful technology is widely adopted, it becomes a de facto requirement. Take the driver's license. No law requires you to have one if you're not driving, but try getting anywhere (like on a plane) without one.

  • If a technology can be abused, it will be. We need look no further than recent headlines on domestic spying to see this.

RFID is a helpful, marginal tool today. But if it becomes a powerful, ubiquitous technology, the threats may not be a laughing matter. Wisconsin Act 482 probably does not address any real problem in any meaningful way, but it might be the beginning of an important discussion on RFID.

William Jackson is a GCN senior writer. E-mail him at wjackson@postnewsweektech.com.

About the Author

William Jackson is freelance writer and the author of the CyberEye blog.

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