Tracking the RFID Revolution

Thu Feb. 16, 2006 5:21 PM PST

Tiny chips implanted under your skin tracking access and movement: that may sound like something out of a science fiction movie, but these identity tags, more commonly known as RFIDs, could become the wave of the future. As tiny as a grain of rice and medically implanted in your forearm, the chip functions like a UPC code, scanned to access restricted areas, or to help morgue workers identify missing persons or remains. At the moment, the RFID is technically a "passive" chip and doesn't send out any sort of signal, and and isn't used for tracking or surveillance -- at least not yet. With implant machines already used for a wide range of benefits, I wonder how resistant most people would be to adopting something like this. After all, if you're hearing impaired, you get a cochlear implant. Heart problems are often relieved with a pacemaker. So are RFIDs entirely out of the question?

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One concern is that these chips might eventually be used for corporate product-tracking. Here's an example of how this would work: You walk into a supermarket and pass by an innocuous-looking RFID reader. Due to the RFID chip on your credit card, the store knows what you've purchased in the past. You then pick up a six pack of Pepsi that has RFIDs attached to each can. Because another RFID reader is in place, when you keep the six-pack in your hands for 15 seconds before putting it back down, Pepsi's marketing department records this information in order to improve its labeling. When you leave the store with a 6-pack of Coke and walk through a reader, Coke records that its product has just left the store. When you get in your car and pass RFID readers as you get on and off the freeway, the RFID chips on your shirt send information about where your shirt is. When you put your 6-pack in a fridge that also has an RFID reader attached, Coke knows where your soda is. When six cans pass by the reader on the way out of the fridge, Coke knows that the 6 pack is done. Coke then sends you coupons to buy more Coke and also updates your kitchen shopping list.

There are obviously some disconcerting aspects to this scenario. With the database monitoring your activity, choice becomes rather limited. Because all your preferences are catered to, there is little incentive for exploration. The chips could potentially become prey to identity theft, leaving not only your credit card number exposed, but essentially everything about you.

But then again, this whole scenario is probably down the road. The first wave of the RFID revolution will most likely serve as a means of identification, most likely starting with passports. Still, once we begin to entertain the technology, the next wave might not be far behind.

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