BY ELIZABETH FIEND When dragonflies head south, they like to ride the tailwinds generated by cold fronts. But when they go north, they prefer to buzz home on warm winds. We know this because scientists attached radio transmitters to the insects along with a single-wire antenna, powered by a super-tiny battery, running down the length of their abdomen. Video may have killed the radio star at the tail end of the 20th Century, but radio is back, big time in the 21st. Radio Frequency Identification tags and chips are here. RFID, as it’s called, is an identification system that allows information to be stored and then retrieved via radio waves.
The tags can be attached or incorporated into an inanimate “thing” or a living creature. Complex tags, like the ones used on the dragonflies, contain silicon chips with antennae which require an internal power source, like that wee battery. But the simplest tags don’t require a power source at all.
Do you use E-ZPass and just cruise on through the tool booth? Electronic tool booth collection uses RFID technology to speed things along on the road. Got one of those new-fangled credit cards that you just wave in front of a reader at the store? It has an RFID chip in it. Already, cell phone makers are building RFID chips into their phones, turning the phone itself into a payment device, which will ultimately replace debit and credit cards. RFID tags are poised to take off in a major way. Wal-Mart and the Department of Defense are at the forefront of developing the way this technology is to be used — both have mandated that their top suppliers incorporate RFID tags in to their products. In its own special Wal-Mart-way, the retail megalith is shoving this technology down the throats of their 100 top suppliers. They’re literally strong-arming other giant companies (which is cool in a twisted sort of way) like Kraft Foods, Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson and Hewlett-Packard to either adopt the technology or Wal-Mart will drop them as a supplier of goods. Fake-hip retailer Target is also on the RFID bandwagon.
RFID tags will be used to track down the last Tickle Me Elmo doll in the store and to catch the shoplifter aiming to liberate it. Libraries are using the tags to locate books that are out of order or upside down on the shelf. In the global health arena, tags could be used to track birds and the spread of the Avian Flu. You may not have realized you’ve already been tracked at the ski resort and at sports and entertainment venues. In Barcelona, the ultra clubbing experience at the Baja Beach Club is to allow the staff nurse to embed an RFID chip into your upper arm. Welcome to the Baja VIP Club — wave goodbye to IDs and the tacky use of money, and while you’re at it, wave your upper arm at the reader: You’re in.
If you love gadgets you can buy the Loc8tor. Priced starting at $99, it’s a combo of radio frequency-emitting tags and a cell phone-sized reader to monitor the tags. Attach the tags to your keys, your briefcase or the cat. Hey, it also has an add-on “panic” button tag your kid can press to alert you that he’s being abducted by a sexual predator. With its catchy slogan — “Don’t lose it, locate it!” — how can you resist? Currently, the systems’ max range is only 600 ft., but that will change.
The benefits of RFID on the business end will be vast. RFID tags will be attached to individual items and to loading dock pallets, store and warehouse shelves. Imagine how easy this will make inventory, or unloading a truck at the warehouse. It’s going to totally drive down the cost of merchandise assessment. Of course, those savings will be passed on to the consumer. Not!
Part and parcel of RFID use in consumer products will be the new electronic product code (EPC) a new industry standard developed by EPCglobal and born out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The EPC will become the “smart” bar code of the future. Old-school bar codes only identify what’s in the package, but the new electronic product code will tell not only what’s in the package but also be used to determine the exact location of that specific item.
Is this all just a benign extension of the bar code or a sinister surveillance device? RFID tags on the on the outside shrink-wrap of a product? No problem. But what about when that tag is embedded inside the hem of your jeans, or in your sneakers, your car tires? It could be broadcasting messages about you . . . to Them. Pair up RFID tags with satellite GPS (Global Positioning Systems), and escape is futile.
All privacy-invading inventions start out small. Right now, the broadcast range of the tags is limited to about 3,000 ft., but stronger signals and richer data streams will eventually turn these teensy tags into powerful tools for tracking consumers’ purchases, a person’s whereabouts, even where an item is located inside your home. There’s a refrigerator in the pipe-stream that will use RFID tags to notify you when your milk has expired! Will Big Brother spy on us? Of course, who are we kidding? The implementation of RFID tags sets up the possibility of staggering privacy violations not only by businesses, but also the Feds. The Postal Service has expressed interest in putting an RFID tag on every stamp. Chips will definitely be used in identity documents like passports. But how comfortable will you feel when they’re embedded in your drivers license, which you must carry, by law, in order to drive?
And what about crooks? The information on RFID tags is encrypted, but one company, DIFRWear, isn’t taking any chances — it’s already begun manufacturing a special wallet that blocks radio waves, to prevent theft of the data you carry around in your pocket.
At first, these tags are not going to “collect” consumer information. But in the near future, when you purchase something with an RFID credit card and an RFID customer loyalty card, someone will be able to collect an awful lot of info about you. A middle class African-American woman who lives in the suburbs and votes Democratic one day purchases the magazine Golf at the check out stand. Next thing you know Republican campaigners are at her door trying to convince you to vote Red. Wait, that already happened during this past election, without the use of RFID tracking. Imagine the type of files, data and marketing information that will be construed about you when much, much more of your life is so easily tracked and monitored?
Hell, at some point we’ll probably be implanting them in our pets. Oh wait, have we already done that? Well, our kids for sure. If not, install the technology in our schools to log students as they enter and exit school. Mom and Dad feel left out? Why not put the spy chip into your staff-ID tag? Already on the market is iHygiene, an “intelligent hygiene management system.” It uses RFID technology to monitor employee compliance with company hand washing policy. Is this the end of E.coli, or the beginning of something much more sinister?
The Federal Trade Commission has begun researching consumer use of RFID and the risks to privacy it poses. Some states have already begun floating laws about RFID use. In California, a bill has been introduced to keep tags separate from personal information. It passed, but then The Governator vetoed it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Elizabeth Fiend is Philadelphia’s Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart. Most people don’t know it yet, but that will change. Miss Fiend is host of the Big Tea Party. But enough of my yackin’, here’s Elizabeth with the 411 on her column: “Most people don’t think about the fact that science doesn’t determine our government’s regulations and recommendations for health and the environment, it’s sleazy politicking and backroom lobbying that makes the rules and I would like to bring this fact more to the forefront,” she says. “My philosophy is decidedly anti-big business/governmental lobbying but in line with the science of (my idol, ok crush) Dr. Walter Willett, Harvard University School of Public Health. There’s an edge to it, but it’s not goofy new age-y stuff with no basis in fact. And besides all that, I am the most fun of all the health advocates. I’m the only one who consistently wears pink and is brewing absinthe in her kitchen (excuse me, that’s illegal, infusing absinthe).” Word.