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When Conrad Chase, director of Barcelona·s Baja Beach Club, asked his VIP customers if they wanted a microchip implanted in their arms, many of them didn·t think twice. After all, the minuscule chip facilitated unheard-of freedom of movement, since it could be scanned to reveal a person·s identification and credit-card information, allowing customers to leave their wallets and handbags at home. It seemed like the ultimate form of convenience, and soon clubgoers in Glasgow and Rotterdam were latching on to the trend. ·I know many people who want to be implanted,· Chase told CNN in 2004. ·Almost everybody now has a piercing, tattoos, or silicone. Why not get the chip and be original?·

Two years later, the subcutaneous chips haven·t yet taken American club kids by storm, but it seems the remote-sensory technology·called radio-frequency identification (RFID)·is popping up everywhere else. The technology, which was largely researched and developed in Boston, is already being used in EZ Pass transponders, garage-door openers, and cell phones. Some cities, including Los Angeles, are making them mandatory for all adopted pets, and many schools are hailing efforts to embed them in children·s ID cards. Meanwhile, manufacturers are using RFID tags, which consist of a flat antenna and an embedded chip that can be as small as a grain of sand, to track packages as their goods travel throughout the world.

The RFID industry has much bigger plans, and with tag prices dropping dramatically over the past three years, it·s primed to explode. An increasing number of retailers want to put RFID tags on every item in their stores, making manual inventory and even shoplifting things of the past. The health-care industry is planning to use RFID to track patients and cut down on medical errors, the U.S. government wants to put chips in passports, and the European Union will soon embed the microchips in its currency. The American company VeriChip is already selling implantable forms of RFID·like the ones used in that Barcelona bar·similar to those used to track pets.

·RFID will revolutionize our lives and change the way we live,· says Dr. Peter Harrop, chairman of the RFID consulting company ID Tech EX, which sponsored an RFID trade show in Boston last month. Indeed, officials at MIT Auto-ID, a consortium of scientists and corporations that set up shop seven years ago to develop modern applications for the technology, say the tiny chips could one day be used to track every item on Earth.

The industry is keeping mum about when and how all this will unfold, but it already has privacy advocates scared. They worry that information contained on RFID chips can be stolen or read remotely. Even worse, they say, once RFID tags are attached to every item, humans can potentially be tracked through tags embedded in the items they carry and wear. The writing is already on the wall: IBM has filed an RFID-reader patent to track people, and Gillette has used tags to spy on Wal-Mart customers in Brockton, Mass. You don·t have to believe in the Mark of the Beast, as some critics do, to fear this technology·s invasive and dehumanizing potential.

he easiest way to understand radio- frequency identification is that it is intended to replace the bar code, and it functions in much the same way. The RFID tag works in conjunction with a reader that emits radio waves as it searches for tags. Once a tag and a reader come in contact, the chip broadcasts its identification number exactly as a bar code does. Unlike bar codes, however, RFID tags can be read up to 40 feet away by any compatible reader device. There·s no need to place a tag directly in front of a reader, and readers can read multiple tags at once.

As Katherine Albrecht, a consumer advocate and co-author of Spychips: How Major Corporations and Government Plan to Track Your Every Move with RFID (Nelson Current, 2005), explains, a bar code assigns the same SKU number to every product. That is, each six-pack of beer that is scanned reveals the same number. But RFID assigns a unique number to each item, which means that individual beer bottles can be tracked.

Just as important, where bar codes are visible, RFID tags are designed to be hidden. While many tags are currently placed on the back sides of shipping labels, manufacturers are working on ways to embed them in a product·s packaging. As of now, no law requires anyone to inform the public that the products you buy might be affixed with RFID tags.

In 2003, Wal-Mart announced that suppliers must put RFID tags on shipping pallets sent to its stores, which created an RFID market that slashed the prices of tags. Today, major corporations and governments that had previously been unable to afford the technology are drafting plans to adopt RFID, indicating that the start of the much-talked-about RFID revolution is under way.

At an RFID trade show·Smart Labels USA·held in Boston last month, industry leaders outlined a future in which home appliances equipped with RFID could speak to one another. Washing machines and ovens will eventually preset themselves, trade-show delegates said, and refrigerators will manage their own contents by reading tags on food items containing expiration dates, recipe suggestions, and cooking instructions.

·Imagine going home, taking out meat, and having the oven read it and preset the oven,· Geoff Seago, vice-president of marketing at the Emirates Technical Innovation Center, told fellow trade-show delegates. Seago says his company has already begun work on a futuristic supermarket in which all food items will bear RFID tags that moderate temperature and contain extensive expiration information.

The technology will allow companies to follow products as they are transported from manufacturers· headquarters to distribution centers and stores. And once RFID readers are placed on shelves, they will manage inventory and reorder items when stock runs low. Eventually, registers will even scan RFID tags and charge the items to a store account, eliminating the need for cash registers, Seago said at the Boston RFID trade show.

By planting readers around a store, trade-show delegates said, customers could be identified by RFID-embedded technology they are carrying. They could then be followed remotely as they browse, and the items they look at and purchase would be recorded and stored in a database, which marketers could use to target an individual·s consumption patterns.

Jamshed Dubash, director of technology EPC (Electronic Production Code) at Procter & Gamble/Gillette (the companies merged in 2005), says that Gillette has already used RFID chips inside many Braun CruZer packages to ·track when displays moved from the backroom to the store floor.· The company uses this information to set up promotions and better sell its product.

RFID applications will not be limited to retail or home appliances. Representatives say hospitals will use chips to read a patient·s medical history and reduce errors; airports will use tags to track luggage. Pharmaceutical companies plan to use RFID to ensure that counterfeit items don·t enter the supply chain. The industry is especially excited about this innovation, as counterfeit drugs cause thousands of deaths each year, representatives say.

Despite complaints lodged by privacy advocates, ·RFID is saving lives, preventing counterfeiting, and increasing security,· Harrop says. ·People in RFID have a lot to be proud of.·

ndeed, even staunch privacy advocates like Albrecht recognize the potential for radio-frequency identification technology and are therefore not urging that RFID tags be banned. ·We·ve essentially told consumers, ·Go ahead and use RFID on pallets and other uses,· · says Albrecht.

But eventually, she says, a line should be drawn. For her, that means ·no item-level tagging and no RFID used to track people.·

For other privacy advocates, however, the question of where to draw the line is not as clear. Some opponents would simply like to be informed that the technology exits, while others are seeking to drastically curb its uses. Yet the majority of RFID opponents agree that something needs to be done to ensure that the technology promising so many benefits will not be used to invade privacy as well.

RFID chips ·promise great new efficiencies and conveniences, but [they] also hold the potential to enable the most Orwellian kinds of surveillance,· Barry Steinhardt, of the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a 2004 U.S. congressional subcommittee information session that explored the nature of RFID.

A handful of state senators, privacy groups, and the ACLU have pushed for legislation to ensure that abuses of the technology will not occur. Yet so far the industry has been resistant to even moderate legislative restrictions.

Harrop says that manufacturers have not backed RFID legislation because it is both ·unnecessary· and would hurt the industry before it is allowed to grow. RFID will not be used to track individuals as privacy advocates fear, Harrop says, because the industry has already enacted a number of rules similar to those that govern the bar code.

These rules, established by EPC Global·an outgrowth of the MIT Auto-ID Center·say that individuals have the right to ·know when RFID tags are in location and in use,· to ·have RFID tags deactivated,· and to ·buy tagged products without having their personal information linked to the tag number of that product.·

Legislators, who are fearful of allowing the industry to police itself, have attempted to do little more than codify these stipulations into law. Still, the RFID industry has resisted. In 2004, Utah became the first state to try, and fail, to enact RFID regulations. State legislators attempted to pass a Right to Know Act based on the EPC Global regulations. The bill passed the state·s House of Representatives, but it expired before it was voted on in the Senate.

According to, a blog and sounding board, RFID users were worried about clauses insisting that tags be disabled or removed at the point of sale. ·Retailers demanded changes to the bill,· the Web site says, and the bill expired before changes were made.

Massachusetts may soon be facing a similar situation. In 2004, State Senator Jarrett Barrios sponsored legislation comparable to that rejected in Utah. The bill, SB-181, says that consumers have a right to know about RFID and to have their tags removed before leaving a store. It also says that consumers must give a retailer permission to track their purchasing and buying habits.

The bill received a 90-day extension earlier this month, but Barrios· office is not certain that it will be approved. ·We·re still fighting for it to be reviewed favorably,· says Dalie Jiminez, director of special programs for Barrios. ·But for most people, [RFID] hasn·t hit home yet.·

The opinion of Terry Laine, spokesman for the U.S. Energy and Commerce Committee, reflects this sentiment. Though one of its committees held an information session in July 2004 to examine the potential uses and abuses of RFID, it has not yet proposed any legislation. ·We have a pretty robust privacy agenda, but I don·t think that RFID is an issue that at this point has caused a lot of concern,· Laine said.

mericans are generally unconcerned about RFID because they don·t know about it yet. And the industry wants to keep it that way.

Albrecht recalls attending an RFID conference last year where she proposed a Right to Know Act. ·I have legislation that is not trying to kill this technology,· she told an audience of RFID manufacturers. ·All you have to do is identify that you·re using tags.·

Yet instead of expressing relief that the bill would not limit the technology, Albrecht says, the crowd grew irritable. ·You know as well as I do, if you tell the public [about RFID], then they won·t let you do it,· she recalls a man saying.

Albrecht says that the industry is trying to use a Trojan horse to implement RFID, so that the technology will arrive in our midst before we have a chance to react. ·By the time consumers become aware of this technology, there will be nothing they can do about it,· Albrecht says.

Herb Markwardt, RFID project leader for Tyson Foods, reinforced this idea during a presentation at last month·s RFID conference. ·If you want the technology to become ubiquitous, you must get it to the consumer in a form they think they can·t live without,· he said.

Harrop points out that consumers have often responded in such a way. Cell phones and credit cards are currently tracking our movements and purchases, yet ·I·ve never heard of privacy groups ever giving a damn about it,· he says.

Albrecht, meanwhile, maintains that the RFID industry has good reason to keep quiet about its plans. She points to a 2001 IBM patent application that outlines the company·s intention to track people in public places.

In the patent, IBM explains how it will identify people using the RFID tags that a person is already bearing·in a package they·re carrying, say, or embedded in a garment or a shoe. Once IBM has determined a person·s identity, it will track him or her around a store and record his or her shopping habits. This information will be used to ·provide targeted advertising to the person as the person roams.·

The patent also suggests that this same tracking method can be carried out in public spaces. Readers can be placed in ·shopping malls, airports, train stations, bus stations, elevators, trains, airplanes, restrooms, sports arenas, libraries, theaters, museums, etc.,· it says.

Patents are frequently written to cover all potential uses of a technology, so it does not necessarily indicate that IBM is planning to track people. Still, the patent undermines frequent industry assertions that the technology will not·and even cannot·be used to track individuals.

In fact, Wal-Mart, Gillette, and Procter & Gamble have already been caught surreptitiously spying on consumers. In 2003, a Wal-Mart in Brockton, Mass., was found to have installed a ·smart shelf· that held RFID-tagged razors. When a package was removed from the shelf, the tag in the box triggered a hidden camera that snapped the customer·s picture. That same year, a similar scheme occurred in Broken Arrow, Okla., with packages of Lipfinity Lipstick.

These stories have validated many privacy advocates· concerns and hastened them to further action. In July 2004, Steinhardt told members of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce that RFID, along with computers, GPS, biometrics, and sensors, is ·feeding what can be described as a surveillance monster that is growing silently in our midst.·

·The fact is, there are no longer any technical barriers to the creation of the surveillance society,· Steinhardt said. If the technology is allowed to develop and IBM·s patent is approved, this may certainly be true.

Lee Tien, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), agrees. The EFF ·would admit that . . . because there aren·t many RFID readers in the social environment, it·s not right now a major threat,· he says. ·But the problem is, we see the technology moving very quickly . . . therefore, the possibility of tracking personal info is going to increase.·

Still, Peter Harrop says that RFID will not become Big Brother. He maintains that RFID won·t diminish privacy any more than other technologies have. You have to consider how little privacy there already is, he says. ·If you·ve taken out a [shopper·s loyalty] card, stores like Wal-Mart already know a frighteningly lot about you.·

In fact, it·s remarkable how much consumer information Wal-Mart already has. According to a Nov. 14, 2004, article in The New York Times, Wal-Mart·which collects information at its cash registers·has 460 tetrabytes of data digitally stored at its Bentonville, Arkansas, headquarters. ·To put that into perspective, the Internet has less than half as much data,· the article says.

The advent of the Internet, cell phones, and various other technologies has shown us just how easy it now is to collect and store consumer information. And there are a number of companies that currently specialize in consolidating such data.

·We have a massive personal-information superhighway in this country,· says the EFF·s Tien. ·There·s this giant infrastructure that collects, buys, and sells your info. Even if there weren·t a single RFID, they·d be doing that.·

Still, Tien says that a consumer·s current lack of privacy should not be a justification for its continued erosion. ·It·s a mistake in attitude or approach to say, ·Well, because we·ve already given up stuff, we should give up more,· · he says.

While consumer privacy is already limited, Tien says, it·s diminishing in a relatively controlled environment. Privacy invasion today ·is taking place in a setting where you are aware of it, and you know who you·re exchanging info with, and to some extent you·re making a choice about doing so, versus having no choice and not having any knowledge,· he says.

Cell phones may be tracking us, for instance, but the Federal Trade Commission prohibits cell-phone companies from releasing, sharing, or selling one·s personal information or whereabouts, Tien says. In other words, the cell-phone industry ·is not the Wild West,· he says, ·whereas with location trackers like RFID, there are as of yet no base-line privacy rules.·

In the meantime, the RFID industry is carrying out its plans to tag and track the world. And the public is still largely unaware.

·Plenty of challenges remain, but it·s only a matter of time before the tag line for RFID. . . evolves from technology of the future to business as usual,· IBM recently wrote on its Web site. Once the public realizes what·s at stake, RFID might already be upon us.

·Business as usual· could mean it·s already too late.

Vanessa Czarnecki is a freelance writer living in Boston. This story first appeared in the Boston Phoenix.

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