Imagine you’re at the grocery store and you take some tortellini from the cooler. Embedded in the packaging is a microchip that emits radio waves. The next thing you know, an ad for a high-end pasta sauce is flashing on a screen mounted on your shopping cart.
Then imagine that by scanning your house for the tiny chips implanted in every manufactured item you own, a thief generates an inventory of your clothing, DVDs, and pricey electronics, and decides to rob your house.
Finally, imagine you walk into an airport and a security officer is immediately able to find out your identity, banking information, and travel history by reading data stored in a chip in your passport—or even implanted under your skin.
Although these scenarios may sound like science fiction, the technology—known as radio-frequency identification, or RFID—is already being used to track goods such as Gillette razor blades and Gap clothing in stores. The patent for a chip that could be used in passports to monitor people in airports belongs to IBM, and a company called VeriChip is marketing a chip that is implanted under the skin in order for people to keep tabs on children, the elderly, and prisoners.
Consumer-privacy advocate Katherine Albrecht, who has briefed Canada’s federal privacy commissioner on the technology, advises Canadians to resist RFID.
“There are certainly things you can do with RFID that might be cool, but the costs of introducing this technology into our society so vastly outweigh the benefits, the technology shouldn’t be deployed at all,” Albrecht told the Georgia Straight.
Since May, enhanced driver’s licences containing RFID chips have been available to British Columbians for an extra fee of $35. The licences broadcast data that can be read by U.S. border officials up to 50 metres away, and allow the cardholder to enter the U.S. without a passport.
In the 2005 book Spychips: How Major Corporations and Government Plan to Track Your Every Move, Albrecht and coauthor Liz McIntyre argue that the use of RFID in identification cards sets up governments to misuse private information.
“If you went to a political event, such as a peace march, political rally, or gun show,” Albrecht explained from her New York office, “with RFID, all the law-enforcement agents would have to do is mill around the crowd with an RFID reader in their backpack and they would be able to pick up all of the ID cards of everybody within a 30-foot radius of where they stood.”
While RFID chips aren’t new—the technology has been in development for some 50 years—companies have only recently embraced their consumer applications. The chips are so small—smaller than a grain of rice—that they are virtually invisible when contained in a product, and are superior to bar codes because they contain data specific to each individual item and can be read through packaging up to 10 metres away. At a cost of about five cents each, RFID chips are an inexpensive way to track inventory as it’s shipped, distributed, and sold.
Having researched hundreds of RFID patents for her book, Albrecht said that companies also plan to track products after they are sold to learn about “how consumers interact with products” for marketing purposes.
“The end point is that every physical object manufactured on planet Earth would have an RFID tag instead of a bar code,” she said. “There would be reader devices to pick up signals everywhere you go, including in our refrigerators to keep track of what we’re eating.”
What is most alarming to NDP MLA Maurine Karagianis, is that consumers aren’t aware that RFID tags are already widespread.
“First and foremost, it [RFID] is being embedded in consumerism without our knowledge or approval,” Karagianis said in a phone interview.
The representative for Esquimalt–Royal Roads is concerned that Canada’s privacy laws aren’t sufficiently robust to deal with the unique challenges of RFID. “We have no regulation around the use or prohibition or restriction on RFID,” she said. “I’m worried that, without adequate discussions of RFID use and application and what the ramifications could be in the future at a legislative level, the discussion will be led by consumer advocates or corporate retail interests.”
Although B.C. information and privacy commissioner David Loukidelis wonders why the U.S. government is pushing for the adoption of a relatively insecure technology for use in border identification documents, he questions the gravity of related privacy concerns. In a phone conversation with the Straight, he pointed out that along with the licences, the B.C. government is issuing a sleeve that blocks the RFID signal when it is not being used.
Loukidelis asserted that global-positioning-system tracking in cellphones is a much more significant privacy issue. “Nevertheless, the principle of being able to track people as they move about is what is of concern, regardless of the particular technology,” he said.
RFID is just one of a growing number of technologies—including Internet marketing, GPS devices, and store-loyalty cards—that threaten our privacy and are not fully understood by consumers, according to Richard Rosenberg, a UBC professor emeritus of computer science who sits on the board of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association.
“All of this taken together leads to a substantial decrease in privacy and a lessening of the importance of privacy in a democratic society,” Rosenberg told the Straight.More