Being Aware of Spychipping

There was a commercial a year or so ago where a scruffy looking young man walked around the grocery store surreptitiously stuffing various products into the pockets of this clothing. The illusion was that he was a sneaky shoplifter, but in the end he walked through an electronic door jamb, beams of red light shot out to every product hidden on his body, and then the young man nonchalantly picked up his receipt on the other side. The receipt listed every product scanned and the amount automatically deducted from his bank account.

I can’t remember what product the commercial was hoofing; I want to say that it was a credit card. The secondary point of the commercial, though, was to impress the audience by the idea of the seemingly convenient technology that may be a reality in the not-too-distant future. I doubt most people, including myself, stopped to think about the true implications of such a technology on our security or our privacy. But as I read the book Spychips by Katherine Albrecht and Liz McIntyre that commercial came to my mind several times.

Spychips discusses the development, proposed uses, and possible negative consequences of radio-frequency identification chips (RFID). Most people are not even aware of RFID and the fact that manufacturers have already put them on products that we may have even brought home. Actually, the ultimate goal of many manufacturers is to have RFID chips and readers on every product in every store, in every part of our homes, and even eventually in every human being. Why do they want to do this? Many large corporations want to use RFID to invade our privacy even more than they already do (think junk mail and telemarketing) by being able to track our every movement in a store, our every little purchase, and our personal consumption, so that they can make profiles of our likes and dislikes so that they can bombard us with even more unsolicited and personalized marketing promotions

The scariest part is that the U.S. government, particularly the Department of Defense, the Treasury, and Homeland Security, is also extremely keen on implementing RFID. Did you know that starting in May 2008 all states are required by federal law to make driver’s licenses that can be scanned by any state and any Federal agency? These new licenses must conform to regulations set up by Homeland Security and will most likely include RFID chips. In the coming years, one would have to have one of these new licenses to enter a Federal building or fly on an airplane. U.S. passports have already been equipped with RFID chips. Supposedly this is all done in the name of national security, and again 9/11 is being used to scare everyone into acceptance.

So what is so scary about RFID? Isn’t it just a fancy bar code? Actually, bar codes require a line of sight with a reader beam in order to spill it’s information, and every product does not have its own unique id number. UPC bar codes are used to number batches of a product. Passive RFID chips have an antenna and a computer chip which send out a radio signal that can be activated by any RFID reader with in a few feet and can transmit a complete history of its host product’s manufacture and sell through an internet database. In the afore-mentioned commercial the products were read through clothing, so bar code technology would not have been tenable. Furthermore, the scruffy young man must have had a form of identification with an RFID chip (either a credit card or store-specific reward card) in order for his bank account to be accessed.

Active RFID chips have their own battery, constantly transmit their information, and have a longer range of transmission. There is no common way to deactivate an RFID chip unless you want to burn up your microwave. If RFID chips become standard in every product, than RFID readers will become more readily available to anyone who wants one, including criminals who could make a note of every valuable and its location on your person or in your home in a matter of seconds from a few feet away.

And the impact on Civil Liberties could be devastating. If we live in an RFID world than the government can track your every movement, restrict your ability to travel within your own country, and arbitrarily ostracize people from society by deactivating their ID chips and their ability to buy or sell. Any company could refuse you service or give you a variable price rate based on how profitable you have been to them in the past or how profitable they project you will be to them in the future, not good for the poor or frugal. Health insurance companies, which already do this, could be empowered even further to deny your coverage just by perusing your past food purchases and deciding that you brought that heart attack on yourself. So in the RFID world that is being proposed and pushed don’t expect privacy, anonymity, equality, or fairness.

Pushers of RFID technology were surprised to learn that most people who were asked were not to keen on their idea, even without the negative implications being spelled out; they were delighted to learn, though, that most people feel helpless to resist the technology. How am I to resist getting a new RFID driver’s license, which is tantamount to a National ID card, when it is illegal to be caught driving without a license? How can I avoid products that have RFID chips in them when manufacturers are not required by law to let me know they are there and the chips can be as small as the period at the end of a sentence and hidden from accessible sight?

What can the average person who is concerned about RFID do? I’m still puzzling that one out myself. Sometimes I don’t know if it’s better to be aware or ignorant of the whole thing, but my gut tells me that it is better to be aware and make other aware. I can suggest that people read Spychips and visit the website of the watchdog group CASPIAN to get a better idea of with what we are dealing. I can try to avoid using my check card so much and avoid any store that requires a “reward” program card; I never really thought about how much I was willingly giving up my privacy to corporations and manufacturers by using these things. I can write to my Senators and Congress members and urge them to fight RFID by passing laws that require public notification of use and resist government implementation of the technology. And I can pray that at the end of this election year we will get a new presidential administration that will reign in Homeland Security and respect the Civil Liberties that we are guaranteed in the Constitution.

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One Comment on “Being Aware of Spychipping”

  1. Laura Witten Says:

    Amen, sister! Indeed, what can we do? My license is renewing in july – do I not go? Do I cause a scene when my picture is redone? Do I leave pamphlets everywhere in the clerk’s office so they know I’m not happy with it? Or maybe I ask them where the RFID is on the license and if the don’t know I shred it when i get home. On the other hand, if they do know, I cut it out and leave it at the clerk’s office. That would be making a statement. I sure hope Obama is against the national ID – I sure haven’t heard him mention it.

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