Joe Lavin

October 18, 2005

The New World of Consumer Tracking
Or: I Think That Can of Soup Is Watching Me

Recently, I bought Katherine Albrecht and Liz McIntyre's "Spychips," a new book about how something called RFID allows all your purchases to be tracked, but you probably already knew that I bought it. According to this book, our privacy is clearly at risk. What's worse is that our privacy may be at risk from things as simple as cans of soup, all because of electronic tracking tags that corporate America plans to place on consumer products. It's one thing to be spied on by suave super agents, but it's downright insulting when you're foiled by the food in your pantry.

RFID stands for Radio Frequency Identification, and it's designed to replace bar codes. These almost-invisible tags require no batteries and can use the radio waves of a nearby RFID reader to send a signal back to that reader. Rather than requiring a bar code scanner, inventory can automatically be done by computer with RFID. Soon, you may be able to skip the checkout lane at the supermarket entirely. Of course, you can do that now, though the authorities tend to frown upon it. With RFID, readers will automatically scan your shopping cart and charge your credit card accordingly.

But this convenience comes with a price. Each individual product gets its own distinct number. Use a credit card or a supermarket "loyalty card" to buy a tagged item, and that item will be associated with you until you throw it away, or perhaps even longer.

Supposedly, these tags will be disabled once you leave the store, but, as the authors show, marketing is the driving force behind this. Why disable the tags when you can keep them on and collect even more information later? IBM has even filed a patent application with the ominous title: "Identification and Tracking of Persons Using RFID-tagged Items." Outright tracking might not happen for several years, but here's a partial list of products that may soon contain these tags.

Underwear - In 2003, Benetton was actually caught trying to put RFID chips in women's underwear, which prompts the question, "how tiny does an RFID chip have to be not to itch?" It's a special kind of scientist who dedicates himself to putting tracking devices in women's underwear.

Pajamas - The idea is to prevent small kids from getting kidnapped by spychipping their pajamas. I wonder if it could keep teenagers in line too. But along with this, parents must install RFID readers in their home that could eventually track other items. And that's just what they want us to do.

Trash - Bell South has applied for a patent on a system to study your trash -- well, not yours personally -- with RFID readers, so that they can better analyze the shopping patterns of their customers. After all, just because you throw something out doesn't mean its spy chip will be turned off. Hey, who knew a phone company would be into dumpster diving?

Drugs - Accenture, meanwhile, wants to keep track of your prescriptions. They're developing a way to tag medicine to remind people to take their pills. The downside is that anyone with a reader could see exactly what pills you're buying at the pharmacy. Still, with this technology, your medicine cabinet could eventually e-mail you if you forget to take a pill. Now, if only there were a system to e-mail you to remind you to check your e-mail to see if you missed a pill, then we would be all set.

Passports - Soon, your passport could be spychipped as well. The government thinks this will make it easier to keep an eye on the bad guys. Of course, Albrecht and McIntyre fear that it will also make it easier for the bad guys to keep an eye on us. Overseas, a terrorist with an RFID reader could simply point the reader at tourists and easily spot Americans. Then again, as my Canadian girlfriend points out, they can already do that now. "Hey, do you think that guy in the fluorescent ski jacket asking for directions loudly in English is an American?"

Normally, I wouldn't worry about this. If people are bored enough to track me, then more power to them. Albrecht and McIntyre also seem occasionally paranoid. The logic in their "What Would Hitler Do?" chapter could be applied to any new technology. Still, the more privacy we relinquish, the more marketing attacks we'll have to suffer. If I buy something embarrassing -- not that I ever would -- I don't want my shopping cart playing loud advertisements for equally embarrassing products.

By now, most know about nanotechnology, that noble scientific pursuit in which researchers build tiny nanobots to help keep our Dockers clean. Our only hope is that today's two great branches of science -- that which keeps our Dockers clean and that which puts tracking devices in our Dockers -- haven't been working together. Wouldn't it be great if the technologies were completely incompatible? Wouldn't it be great if all those radio waves confused the nanobots so much that the nanobots started eating the RFID tags? Hey, a liberal arts graduate can dream, can't he?

©2005 Joe Lavin

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