RFID Roundup

Trying to keep the chips down.


Radio-frequency ID chips (RFIDs) are exploding into public consciousness, with institutions ranging from casinos to the government of Singapore announcing plans to use them. RFIDs are tiny chips that can be programmed with identifying information and read by external scanners. Some privacy mavens see them as a step toward a world where everything we own becomes a potential bug that can track us everywhere and all the time.

Several state legislatures are picking up the signal. In late April, California's Senate passed a bill saying that stores and libraries may collect RFID information only on items customers buy or borrow from them—not from those they might look at or momentarily carry or from those already embedded in items the person brought in with them. An earlier version of the bill would have required institutions to disable the chips in items they sell before the merchandise leaves the store. State legislators in Massachusetts, Maryland, and Virginia also intend to consider chip-curbing legislation.

None of this would apply to the RFID use that hits the most Americans where they live: Wal-Mart's use of them on shipping containers and pallets—not (yet) on every individual item for sale, though some individually packaged computer accessories do have their own RFIDs, which can be thrown out with the packaging. Wal-Mart is already using them in its Dallas/Fort Worth shipping facility on items from cooperating suppliers. From Wal-Mart's perspective, this is just part of the state-of-the-art inventory control that has made it the largest, and often the cheapest, retailer in America. It intends to make its top 100 suppliers all use RFIDs by the beginning of next year.

RFID hackers are already floating the idea of deliberately removing and trading the chips or randomly scattering them around the world. Such tactics would be aimed at preventing the use of RFIDs for any purpose outside the inventory control that is currently their main legitimate selling point.