RFIDs Hit the Bigtime


I earlier noted the swift rise to notoriety of the radio frequency identification (RFID) chip within the past six months, after I first learned about them while writing my Reason cover feature on John Gilmore's fight for anonymity, and the increasingly tight web of surveillance that new technologies make possible. But now I know RFIDs have Arrived: Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) wants to regulate them. Some excerpts from the C/NET story:

"We are on the verge of a revolution in micro-monitoring–the capability for the highly detailed, largely automatic, widespread surveillance of our daily lives," Leahy said….
His comments come as commercial giants Albertsons, Wal-Mart Stores and Target are drawing up plans for wide-scale use of RFID systems to monitor merchandise in its path from the factory to cash register, and possibly beyond.

In recent months, the U.S. government has joined in on the action. The Pentagon is expanding its RFID program in an effort to keep armed forces supplied on the battlefield. The Food and Drug Administration recently encouraged the pharmaceutical industry to use the technology to help curb the counterfeit drug trade.

"The RFID train is beginning to leave the station, and now is the right time to begin a national discussion about where, if at all, any lines will be drawn to protect privacy rights," Leahy said.

Consumer advocates fear the push toward RFID will lead to a world in which everyday objects, such as razors and socks, are "tagged" with tiny sensors that can wirelessly communicate with computer networks. In such a scenario, according to even some proponents of the technology, all kinds of personal belongings could constantly broadcast messages about their whereabouts and their owners.

Such visions have already fueled legislative debate at the state level, with at least three states–California, Missouri and Utah–introducing bills designed to assuage privacy concerns related to RFID.

A hearing at the federal level is not likely before the end of the year, a Leahy representative said.

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  1. How about just requiring stores to remove the RFID after purchase, if the customer makes that request?

  2. No regulations required. As soon as these things hit the shelves there will devices to disable them.

  3. Is there an off the shelf RFID “neutralizer”?

  4. and an entire market of “organic” non RFID devices.

  5. I don’t know if there’s anything so bad that Patrick Leahy being involved wouldn’t make it worse.

  6. Let the “snooping” proliferate. Overload the snoopers with data. Or, as they begin to trust the RFID, counterfeit the devices.

    “According to the scanner, that TV cost only $19, and is still on the shelf.”
    “According to the scanner, I was miles away from the scene of the crime.”
    “According to the scanner, Madeleine Albright shaves her pea patch.”

  7. Is it just me, or does the RFID thing seem like a great opportunity for the absent-minded? Forget the inventory management stuff; give me a sheet of RFID stickers and a home-scanner! I’d never lose the television remote again.

  8. Jean Bart,

    Some guys over on slashdot said you could destroy most tags by micro-waving them on low power. This would probably work for the induction based tags but not for the battery powered ones. The small low range tags operate in the 30 to 500khz range so I’m not sure a microwave which usually operate around 2.5ghz would fry the chip via its antenna. It would get the long range chips most of with operate in the ghz range. Just a guess though.

    Wouldn’t be hard to make a custom gadget that would radiate a tag across the possible frequencies, see which one it responded to, then dump a strong signal at that frequency to fry the chip.

    Of course, I wonder if this is all just going to be a repeat of the great UPC bar code panic of the late 70’s early 80’s.

  9. UPC bar code panic?

  10. yeah. Jean, fundamentalist Christians thought it was the actual mark of the Beast without-which-no-man-can-buy-or-sell as featured in the book of Revelations from the Bible. And that was just a sample of the hysteria…

    I wonder what the RFID advocates will do if you buy yard goods and balls of yarn to make your own clothing.

  11. speedwell,


  12. All your tin foil hats out there now have a real use. Check this out – tin foil will block an RF signal.,1294,61264,00.html

  13. Jean Bart,

    Fundies were just part of the hysteria (albeit one I got to see up close and personal). People on the Left denounced bar codes as an evil corporate plot. If memory serves even the ACLU got involved at some point.

    Course, that was followed by the great Caller ID scare where “civil libertarians” said that Caller ID would end all privacy in phone calls, that it was an evil corporate plot, etc ad nauseam. The idea that it would empower individuals against corporations, criminals and (the intersection of those two sets) telemarketers never seemed to occur to them.

    I guess I’ve got “technological threat to privacy” fatique. I’ve seen so many similar panics that I have trouble taking them seriously anymore. I think RFID will, after some tweaking both technological and legal, become one of those technologies we wouldn’t want to live without.

  14. A great opportunity here for someone to market identity-chip free clothing (& other stuff, too).

    LL Bean are you listening?

  15. {“The RFID train is beginning to leave the station, and now is the right time to begin a national discussion about where, if at all, any lines will be drawn to protect privacy rights,” Leahy said.}

    Anyone want to lay odds the Congressional conclusion will be that commercial applications should have all kinds of lines drawn around them, but the government needs unfettered access to the technology to thwart terrorists and protect children?

    I, of course, would argue the opposite.

  16. Me not get numerous “tin foil hat” references.
    Me not stupid, but perhaps ignorant.
    Somebody help me. Explain “tin foil hat.”


  17. For those interested, the webcast of the event is here (RealVideo).

  18. “Tin foil Hat”

    Back somewhere in the 1960s there was a person in California who was paranoid. He believed that “they” (government, space aliens, Mafia, take your pick) were either beaming information into his head or monitoring his thoughts via technology that couldn’t penetrate aluminum foil. Therefore he lined/covered/whatever his hat with foil for privacy. Sort of like the helmet Metallo used to block the professor’s mind control in X-Men I.

    Unfortunately this person (the one in California, not Metallo) apparently encountered quite a few TV and movie writers. (Or, more likely, he met one writer and everyone else “creatively interpreted” <stole> the idea.) The one I remember most clearly had a bit part in an episode of the old B&W Dragnet. I suspect there were probably more fictional characters wearing “tin foil hats” than there were people, but the term came to represent people who are seriously paranoid. (As opposed to conspiracy theorists.)

  19. A bit of techie primer from

    What is RFID?

    RFID (Radio Frequency IDentification) is a wireless system used to identify tags. These tags may be carried by people or animals or mounted on object or vehicles. They may even be embedded under the skin.

    RFID tags are non-contact and non-line-of-sight. This means that you don’t have to “swipe” your card for an RFID system to identify you.

    Passive RFID tags operate using power from the RFID transceiver. Passive tags are small and inexpensive, but do not have good range.

    Active RFID tags are powered, usually by a battery. Active tags are larger and more expensive, but offer a much better identification range.

    RFID tags store data, which is typically used for authentication. Passive tags typically store between 32 and 128 bits of data; Active tags can store up to 1MB of data.

    Passive tags are Read-Only; Active tags are typically rewritable.

    Passive RFID tags are used in retail Electronic Article Surveillance (EAS) system to reduce shoplifting. These are the little white tags you find attached to clothing items and hidden in the pages of books. Most of the EAS systems are manufactured by Checkpoint Systems or Sensormatic.

    Passive tags are also utilized for animal tracking and anywhere else where power is not available and tag cost is more critical than range.

    RFID systems operate across a wide range of frequencies. Lower frequency systems are less expensive; higher frequency systems offer increased range. For RFID purposes, 300-500Khz are considered low frequencies, 850-900Mhz and 2.4Ghz-2.5Ghz are considered frequencies.

    RFID systems to automatically pay highway tolls are high frequency systems.

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