Business, consumers, Family, Life, Privacy, RFID tags, Technology, Thoughts

Would You Like To Be Tagged?

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.

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24 thoughts on “Would You Like To Be Tagged?

  1. hmmm.. I don’t know Ruhi..I wouldn’t be so scared if US implements it.. I would be scared if a kingdom like Saudi implements it! There is a higher chance of being ‘tracked’ in Middle east than anywhere else! In US they might track but, there is nothing to worry as long as you are doing nothing wrong.. and the tracking might help reduce terrorists attacks as well…

    And abt others being able to read the chip! Well counterfeiting and hacking is possible with any form of technology, let it be ATM, credit cards, passports and wat not!

    PS: nice template.. but why did u change?

  2. Balu- US implementing something is no guarantee of the safety of the tags, believe me. If everything that US did were this safe, then the President of US wouldn’t be screwing around with other countries. 🙂

    Can you explain what you mean by “tracking in Saudi”?

    Reading the chip is possible, yes. As of today, most of these chips can be read only within a few feet. So it’s quite difficult to read them, I agree. But with newer stuff coming out and the cost reduction every year, very soon, we’ll see active tags that will have greater chances of being read.

    I changed the template because I’d gotten bored of the old one. This style is based on K2. I also found out some other lovely K2 styles. 🙂 I’m bored of Sandbox (Which I was using for my earlier designs). Never really used K2…so I thought I would give it a try. Does it look nice or not? If it doesn’t, then I’ll change it back to the old theme.

  3. This is outright disgusting! Its like putting a collar on a dog so that it doesn’t get lost. We are going to be treated like dogs? I am not going to let all my personal information to be stored on a chip so that I can be tracked wherever I am.. and lets not forget that computer systems are never secure, so if such a system is hacked, it will cause havock.

  4. @ munim:

    Thanks for your comment. Even though its equivalent to wearing a dog collar, you will be surprised to know that many of us might not mind it if it’s wrapped with sophistication. In fact, I believe that our cell phones can be compared to a dog collar too! Most of us receive every single call that we get over our phones. Not me. Just because someone is calling doesn’t mean that I want to speak at that precise moment too. This is when my voice mail comes into handy. It is a terrible terrible invasion to my privacy.

    Re: Theme, thanks for the compliment. It’s a K2-style. I downloaded some more yesterday, and I’ll try them one at a time.

  5. let me be the devils advocate.
    1) RFID are NFC (near field communication) devices
    i.e. they work only in very close proximity (much like Blue tooth)…. so it would be very expensive to track a person using RFID across a whole city.. leave alone globe./USA.

    2) a better way to track the person is cell phone…
    and if u did not know, it has an open protocol so even a high school kid can create a gadget that can track a person from a 6km distance

  6. We humans have a long history of putting great innovations to bad use. RFID is something which can change the way our business operates but it can be put to an equally unimaginable and horrifying use. The choice is entirely with us. But we all know what is going to happen…don’t we? The things would go completely out of control. Lets see when this happens. Eeeeks…im sounding like Nostradamus. 🙂

  7. @ Ankur Aggarwal:

    Yes, agree with you. Like I said in the post, most of these tags are passive as of now. But you never know what’ll happen in the future. Already I’m hearing about lots of other RFID related developments. If we don’t sit up and take notice, we’ll end up letting this technology empower us instead of the other way round.

    Re: cell phones- completely agree. 🙂 Said the same thing to munim in the previous comment. This is no less than a walking and talking tag.


    Sure, great minds produce dangerous devices. How else could you justify the invention of hydrogen and atom bombs? That’s the reason we need to step up the regulations regarding RFID tags. The use of these tags is growing at an exponential rate already. 🙂 And no, you don’t sound like Nostradamus…this is the truth.

  8. Saudi (and other gulf countries) have the best when it comes to tracking people.. their secret agencies are infamous for this.. there is a long record of Indians who disappeared in these countries without any info.. Na the new one’s cool no probs jus asked =)

    But with newer stuff coming out and the cost reduction every year, very soon, we’ll see active tags that will have greater chances of being read.

    I agree.. thats the bane of technology.. its not forever in other words.. life span is way too short! A technology stops being technology when it becomes common (the situation u are saying it will turn out to be) it becomes a norm then.. for ex Television is no longer considered ‘technology’ but the concepts behind plasma screens still is technology

  9. @Balu: All the gulf countries have very strict immigration laws for security reasons. you can only get a permenant employee visa from your employer(also known as sponser), and hence you are tied to that employer. if you want to change jobs, you have to change your visa.
    the problem is most Indians in low paying jobs like manual labour just run away from their sponser to get a better job, before their term with the current employer is over. hence, they are regarded “absconding”.. thats just the polite term used for illegal citizens.

    @Ruhi: its probably far worse than everyone calling you on your phone when you don;t want to be disturbed. imagine all your info like bank details, credit card details, address, travel info, where you work, what you buy with your card, what sites you visit on the internet, etc… is stored in a central system, and some crazy person who is after your life hacks this system and gets all your info… forget about that….. imagine if the goverment itself gets drunk with power and tries to take advantage of the people.. it may sound like some sci fi horror flick, but believe me.. this scenario won’t be very far in the future after they introduce RFID tags for humans.

  10. hence, they are regarded “absconding”..

    I agree this is the case.. but what after u go absconding.. u get caught by cops (in a while) and then dumped in prison and no one even gets to know.. Ihave read stories in newspapers in Kerala, of laborers who escape the ‘treatment’ by their employers, being caught by cops and living in jail in Gulf countries.. and the relatives back at home crying over the lack of contact.. even Indian embassy can’t do anythin!

  11. @Balu: well.. those are the rules. if they break immigration laws, they will end up going to prison. someone must properly explain the consequences to these labourers before they even come to the gulf countries.
    I have one arabic friend who got 40 labourers from India and paid for their airfare and visas and everything. And now, half of them have run away! The guy now says that these workers are ungrateful and he will never try to bring more of them from India. I understand that these guys are poor and they come here for a brighter future..but they must remember that they come here under contract and if they breach those terms, they will end up in prison.

  12. @ Munim
    aha exactly the problem.. someone should tell them.. but no one does.. agents promise them great working condition and good and money. They reach there only to find a shed to live in and one meal a day. And any attempt to leave the work, they are imprisoned for days together. And in case they get away from their ‘owner’ they are caught by cops!(there is what according to people who escaped from there)

  13. @Balu

    You’re correct when you say that technology stops becoming tech. when it becomes common. Who cares about a TV now, unless it’s HDTV! I think this is going to happen to lots of other gadgets very soon, don’t worry. It scares me to think that RFID tags might also get integrated into our lives to such an extent. I wouldn’t want my body to become a walking transmitter of my personal activities.


    Yes, I can completely understand. I think if we do reach this stage, and I think we might sometime in the near future, the corporations will have a field time because of all the personal information regarding our preferences that they’ll receive. Perhaps then, the regulatory authorities will feel that it’s finally ‘time’ to step up the laws and regulations. My question is- why wait to see that day? shouldn’t this technological field be regulated right from Day 1?

    @Balu and Munim

    I’m not aware of the workings of Gulf countries, so I can’t really comment. But yes, you can’t really blame the authorities if these people start running away from jobs, right? Probably these people are uneducated anyway and don’t understand the implication of running away. I wish there were greater awareness regarding this issue. All of this boils down to the common notion that anyone who goes abroad will become rich.

  14. I would not mind having a tag, particularly with respect to medical uses. It would be very helpful in any kind of emergency situations (e.g if I am in an accident). However, I would need to be satisfied that I have control over what information goes into the tag (my name, age, medical conditions ok, certainly not my banck account #) and that there is adequate security with respect to who can read the tag (e.g medical personell only etc). Of course, the technology will evolve to take care of security concerns and such. Regarding regulation, my own opinion has always been that it is the government ‘s role should be to educate rather then regulate.

  15. I wouldn’t want my body to become a walking transmitter of my personal activities.

    Why would you have a problem with that? How does it harm you? Only someone in a close radius will be able to read the thing the trasnmitter wont have all ur personal details jus details for identification purpose thats all!
    How is that harmful? How is that restrictive?

  16. And regarding the gulf issue, the workers cat be blamed fully as they are tricked by middle men (abt the job).. they are refrained from leaving te job and even from contacting home many times

  17. @Bongopondit

    Yes, tagging for medical reasons is becoming more and more common. In fact, the link that I cited in the post is from an Australian site. But they also say that this practice hasn’t yet taken off in Australia because Australians are more wary of new technology. Having control and full awareness of the information that you’re relaying is always a good idea. 🙂


    I’m talking about the “TO BE” scenario, where a consumer might not even know that the dress that he/she’s wearing has a tag attached and which was supposed to be taken off. So, unknowingly, you might be transmitting information regarding your personal choices. Why would you want to do that? That’s private information and the companies pay consumers to take such surveys and reveal your choices. So why do it for free?

    Re: Gulf issue, yes, I’m sure most of these people are taken for a ride and they don’t even know what’s really in store for them. It’s something like flesh trade. I wish people would be more aware of what they’re getting into. Can’t really blame them. Poverty makes you do things you wouldn’t be doing otherwise.

  18. So, unknowingly, you might be transmitting information
    Hmm I dont fully agree.. cos we are in information age.. where piece of information is reported and indexed and debated.. you still think its possible? How can someone not knw?

  19. @Balu

    Even though you’re in information age, it doesn’t mean that everything will be clean and companies will be upfront about it. Take Facebook for example. Nobody knew the fact that you can’t delete your account “completely” even if you delete your profile. Facebook stores all your information in their cache, should you want to come back and reactivate your profile. Just a week back or so, they changed their policy and now they let you delete the full content. When a company like Facebook can do it, then why not those retail chains and companies who will use the tags?

    Not many people read the fine print while buying goods. So even if such a thing is mentioned in fine print, people might not read it and hence not know about it. There are many other ways by which this piece of information might not really get relayed to the end consumer.

  20. Hmm thats an interesting point you make and yes I fully agree to you this time… May be govt should bring out a rule governing use of info on the tags…. rather than let pvt parties come up with their own terms & conditions

  21. @Balu

    Glad to know that you understood what I meant. I do agree that it would be like a dream come true if corporations were to keep the interests of the consumers in mind, but it doesn’t always happen so, unfortunately. 🙂

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