RFID: Tag, We're It!As the technology spreads, who will protect our freedom from information?
EVER SINCE BAR CODES REPLACED packing slips, inventory science has been thinking small — so small that radio-frequency identification tags are barely noticed by consumers who purchase the T-shirts or aspirin bottles to which they're sometimes attached in department-store pilot programs. RFID tags fall into three categories. There are passive tags, whose data can be received and transmitted only when they're powered by an electronic impulse that's generated by a reading device such as a handheld scanner. This impulse travels through the tag's antenna and activates the chip. Data from passive tags usually can only be read anywhere between 9 inches and 30 feet from the tag. Active tags, which are the largest and most expensive, have their own tiny power sources (often paper batteries that utilize special inks) and can be read from greater distances (60 to 300 feet) — including, theoretically, by satellites. Semipassive tags (the kind made by Infratab) also have batteries, but only to power the tags' chips — data is retrieved in the same way as with passive tags. Unlike simple bar codes, RFID tags do not need to be individually scanned and the information they gather can be instantaneously transmitted to remote computers and accessed through the Internet. And, thanks to their use of airwaves, RFID tags don't require a human to be present to operate a reader.RFID-tag technology, which can record and transmit information about a product's origin (i.e., its factory) and destination (a warehouse), along with assigning a unique serial number to individual consumer items, has evolved rapidly in the past decade. However, widespread application has been slowed by price considerations (initially, $1 for the cheapest kind of tag), by the commercial hesitancy that typically greets new science, and by privacy issues. Thus far, use of RFID technology in the U.S. has been relatively limited, appearing most prominently in Defense Department inventory systems. China, by contrast, is replacing its entire population's ID cards with ones bearing RFID tags. The ubiquitous bar code remains America's standard inventory-keeping tool, although this will certainly change if and when rolls of printable RFID tags cost as little as printed bar codes. (Mass-produced passive tags today average between 25 and 50 cents per unit, whereas active tags can cost upward of $50 each. Reading devices cost about $1,000 apiece. RFID costs go down every time a retail giant such as Wal-Mart requires that its suppliers stick RFID tags on their bulk shipments.When attached to a single object, such as a library book, an RFID tag can prevent theft. If attached to an individual retail item (Kleenex box, lipstick tube, T-shirt), the tag can interact with a shopper's credit card, sending information to a computer that then stores the consumer's purchase history. One day every can of soda you purchase could be traced from the moment it leaves the beverage plant to its arrival at a recycling center.How that history is used — and how an individual-item tag might continue to function in the home of the consumer — has given rise to anti-RFID movements in America and Europe. What alarms many civil-libertarians most is the specter of RFIDs being hacked by criminals or government spies through nascent UHF technology. Another fear is of tags being implanted in human beings. There are a small but growing number of people implanted with subcutaneous RFIDs (VeriChips) that store information pertaining to their identity and medical needs — as well as allowing some bearers to fire up their computers, operate garage doors or open their car doors with literally a wave of the hand.There are fears that government or corporate entities will someday require that RFIDs be implanted in staff members or employees. To many people, not being forced to have an RFID tag injected into your hand is as basic a right as not being required to have a serial number tattooed on your arm. Yet in 2006, one surveillance company, Citywatchers.com of Cincinnati, compelled two of its employees to have VeriChips implanted in their arms, and there have been proposals to do likewise with America's alien guest workers. A few states, including California, have recently passed legislation barring the implanting of RFID tags as a job requirement.Infratab's Stanton Kaye and Terry Myers shrug when asked about the possible abuse of RFID technology, pointing out that today most of the personal information people fear will be stolen by tags is already known through credit-card purchases."It's those terrible women," Kaye says about the controversy's origins. "That lady from Harvard."The Harvard lady in question is Katherine Albrecht, the founder of CASPIAN — Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering. Albrecht's partner in the anti-RFID crusade is Liz McIntyre, CASPIAN's chief publicist and campaign strategist. The two women are self-described Christians who have tried to enlist co-religionists to their cause, drawing scorn from critics who characterize their efforts as mark-of-the-beast hysteria. Still, Albrecht and McIntyre's 2005 book, Spychips, was a rallying point for anti-RFID activists and a migraine for the industry. (One of the book's scenarios has RFID tags being embedded in paper money, which means that a chain of cash possession can be established from the moment the money is dispensed by an ATM or bank teller.)In 2006, EPCglobal, the nonprofit trade body that sets uniform technical standards for bar codes and RFIDs, held a trade show at the Los Angeles Convention Center. A lead speaker was Elizabeth Board, EPC's executive director of public policy, who decried what she called "the scaremongering tactics of a few who say GPC is about tracking individuals." She likened some states' efforts to require stores to post entry signs warning shoppers of their use of RFID tags to a 7-Eleven being forced to post a placard announcing that bar codes appear on its merchandise. Board noted with satisfaction that her group's lobbying efforts have slowed down anti-RFID legislation during the past two years, although she anticipated a growing battle in Europe.Board and the RFID industry as a whole probably know that public concerns regarding the tracking of tag-bearers and the potential for outsiders to hack into them must be addressed if RFID is to be accepted as quickly as bar codes were. The RFID industry is reluctantly considering offering consumers the option of "killing" tags at the store upon purchase so they can function only long enough to serve as proofs of purchase. But will everyone remember to exercise his or her freedom from information?