No. This post is not about being tagged for a blog game. It’s about being tagged by RFID chips. Most of us know about Radio Frequency Identification Chips and their ability to change the way we operate. For those of you who don’t know, “RFID is a system of small electronic tags (comprising a tiny chip plus an antenna) that transmit data via a radio signal to RFID readers and related hardware and software infrastructure.” They have always been around, but it’s because of the recent outcry of privacy issues and the potential misuse that these tags are generating lots of news reports. RFID tags hold great promises for lots of industries, including retail chain management. In fact, Walmart is one of the main proponents of RFID tags, which will help the company correctly estimate product demand, prevent stock outs, determine lead time etc. RFID provides the technology to identify uniquely each container, pallet, case and item being manufactured, shipped and sold, thus providing the building blocks for increased visibility throughout the supply chain. According to this article–
RFID promises to revolutionize supply chains and usher in a new era of cost savings, efficiency and business intelligence. The potential applications are vast as it is relevant to any organization engaged in the production, movement or sale of physical goods. This includes retailers, distributors, logistics service providers, manufacturers and their entire supplier base, hospitals and pharmaceuticals companies, and the entire food chain.
This is only half the story. Like any other new technology, even this invention has its good and bad points. I came across this article that talks about the good part, where the tags are being used to monitor the patients in hospitals, reduce baby mismatches and thefts, to provide extra security to nurses and prevent sexual assault in hospitals, monitoring disoriented disabled patients and people with severe illness etc. The US is the number 1 adopter of this practice, and UK and China are slowly adopting this method too. So far, so good.
I read another article at CNN, that talked about how a company in Florida makes human implantable RFID chips, the size of a rice grain. This can be used by doctors to track information from patients, who can’t even speak. Most of these tags are passive and don’t contain a battery. So the information that they contain, which is very small in size, can be read only by a reader, located a couple of feet away. However, its sheer power makes it a potential tool in the hands of corporations, Government and other bodies who can use it for their benefit.
Clothing stores such as Levi’s, Benetton have already experimented with RFID tags for the purpose of tracking inventory and to prevent theft. But a layman will not know that the pair of jeans or shirt that he bought had a tag attached to it. Suppose we forget to take it off and suppose the company decides to play the role of a trickster and makes the RFID tag powerful enough to read your movements and get important information, such as, the stores that you visit, clothes that you buy etc.- we have a potential invasion of privacy right here!
Uncle Sam can’t be far behind when it comes to providing new twists, eh? These tags are being used by the US Homeland Security Department to issue special “e-passports” to tourists from 27 countries, whose citizens can travel to the US without any visa. According to the US Government, these chips will help them better identify and track the movements of such tourists. Only three countries have refused to issue such passports- Andorra, Brunei and Liechtenstein (as of October 2006). Like the article mentions, I think that this is a very dangerous thing to do and can put the passport bearer in imminent danger. Is there any guarantee that the installed chip won’t be read by another unauthorized person? Issuing such passports is equivalent to giving arms to your enemy. It is a two edged sword. Of course, the Homeland Department says that no one else can read these chips except for the authorized personnel. But I don’t believe it. And what about those tourists who’ve been reduced to the status of chained animals? How safe would you really feel knowing that there is someone watching each step that you take. This is just the start and I’m sure in another decade or so, the situation will get much worse.
To assess the effects of an RFID on human privacy, some volunteers from the University of Washington have taken it upon themselves to wear these tags and record the information and then investigate the entire issue. According to this article, in a project called RFID Ecosystem, researchers will give RFID tags to 50 voluntary participants to put on either themselves on their belongings. The location of the tags will be recorded every five seconds, saved to a database and published to Web pages. What’s interesting about the entire experiment is that one tool is used to track a person’s movements in Google Calendar and the other tool is used as a “friend finder”, that sends information such as what the person ate, whether he’s sleeping, going for a movie etc. to participant’s cell phone, email program or even Twitter! This, according to me, is a step in the right direction and I hope it reveals some interesting finds.
All of this brings me to the main issue: How Regulated are these tags? You will be surprised to know that there are no “hard rules” that govern these tags. According to the RFID gazette, FCC regulations stipulate that it the manufacturer/importer is solely responsible for compliance and in case of non-compliance it is the manufacturer and not the retailer who faces stiff fines and disciplinary action. In Europe, several laws have already been passed that need RFID-tagged products to carry a label informing this fact and that consumer data can be gathered only after the consumer has been informed and their consent is necessary for using that data. I haven’t seen anything of this sort in the US…or maybe I haven’t been paying enough attention? I don’t know, but I have never read a label that declared that the product that I’d purchased had a tag attached to it.
Currently, the European Union doesn’t have any set rules that govern the tags. They are likely in the future, depending upon the industry practices though. As far as I know, introducing such laws will also take a considerable amount of time, if you take into account all the industry and political lobbyists. What are these EU people waiting for? Isn’t this the right time to look into this issue? This is a classic case of “Wait and watch”. They need to act before any serious consequences arise.