A creepy new spying technology called Radio Frequency Identification — known by its abbreviation RFID — is starting to show up on products you buy at stores like Walmart, and it could be used to track your every move.
RFID is a tracking technology. It uses tiny microchips hooked up to miniature antennas to track items from a distance. This chip and antenna combination is called an RFID tag. You can see a typical RFID tag here in the diagram. Each tag contains an ID number that uniquely identifies the item to which it is attached. It’s like a Social Security number for things.
RFID tags are tracked by RFID reading devices. These RFID readers gather information from the RFID tags via radio waves, similar to the radio waves that allow you to listen to your favorite FM radio station. RFID radio waves, like FM radio waves, travel invisibly through solid objects like purses, backpacks, wallets and shopping bags.
How do RFID systems keep track of items?
RFID readers collect and process information from matching RFID tags whenever they’re in reading range. Since each RFID tag contains a unique ID number and is associated with a specific item, it’s possible to link items to specific customers at checkout. This makes it possible to track them going forward. There are some preliminary plans to watch the tags all the time, long after purchase, anywhere in the world, through a coming infrastructure known as the “Internet of Things.”
RFID tags are easy to hide. They can be sandwiched in price labels, hidden within the soles of shoes, printed on boxes, and even woven right into fabric and clothing labels. Right now you might have an RFID tag in a store loyalty card or in a credit card and not know it! Most RFID tags get their power from the reader device, so they don’t need batteries. With no parts to wear out, they can beam tracking information to RFID readers indefinitely. And RFID readers themselves can be hidden. We’ve seen plans to embed them in floors, doorways, ceiling tiles and store shelves. Retail logistics departments justify investing in RFID because it lets them locate store inventory at all times and ensure the shelves stay stocked. Marketing departments, on the other hand, love the thought of using RFID to gather intimate data on customers by tracking their movements and secretly scanning the contents of their pockets, purses or backpacks.
We got the lowdown on RFID by attending industry conferences and uncovering a cache of top secret documents that detailed how global corporations and government agencies hope to use RFID-tagged items to track consumers not only in retail stores, but in public spaces and even private homes.
If this all sounds preposterous, we assure you it’s not. IBM has patented something it calls a “person tracking unit” that can track people wearing and carrying RFID tagged items in public places like museums, shopping malls, theaters and libraries — even elevators and public restrooms.
Unfortunately, IBM isn’t alone. AT&T, Procter & Gamble, NCR and other big companies have all developed equally horrifying ways to abuse the technology. And abuses have already occurred. Check out these links to see how Gillette and Procter & Gamble hid RFID tags in innocuous-looking products, then triggered hidden cameras to watch people.
RFID offers companies tremendous power to learn about their customers’ behavior, deliver targeted advertising and even decide which customers deserve top shelf service and which ones to treat badly to discourage them from shopping in their stores. The power all flows one way, though. In their voracious worldview, marketers are the watchers and the manipulators, we customers are the watched and manipulated.
RFID is clearly not in my best interest. How do I protect myself?
It’s not easy to avoid RFID, since tags can be hidden so easily in the things you buy. The good news is that we’ve been sounding the alarm in the early stages while there is still time to stop businesses from putting their horrible ideas into practice. Here’s what you can do:
1. Educate yourself about RFID. Our bestselling book Spychips: How major Corporations and Government Plan to Track Your Every Move with RFID details where RFID is being planned. The book is in many libraries and can be found new and used in bookstores and online. You can read the hilarious introduction by famed sci-fi writer Bruce Sterling, and you can read the first chapter free.
2. Sign up to receive information about RFID and other invasive tracking plans via our website at www.spychips.com. (Note: Please excuse our dust. We are in the process of revamping our website, but the CASPIAN newsletter sign-up form works.)
3. Ask stores if they are using RFID and, if so, where and how. If they’re using it on consumer products, we recommend avoiding the store, or at the very least demanding that RFID tags on the things you buy are removed or permanently disabled at the checkstand. Note: In our opinion, removing and disabling RFID is the moral responsibility of the store. It’s not a burden they should pass on to you, the customer.
4. Finally, help us spread the word about the downsides of RFID. Share links to this article with friends, coworkers, and loved ones. If we work together and let stores know we won’t tolerate being tracked, they’ll have to honor our collective power or die a slow, costly death. We consumers have more control than we realize, since stores depend on our shopping dollars. Give your financial support to retailers that put customers first!
Til next time,
Katherine & Liz
Join the privacy revolution by switching to StartPage.com the private search engine, and using StartMail.com encrypted email, both projects Katherine has helped develop. You can catch Katherine on radio daily at www.kmashow.com. And please read our book, Spychips, to learn more about privacy-invading technology and how to defeat it.
Photo credits: spychips.com, Katherine Albrecht, ghacks.net, Checkpointsystems.com, Texas Instruments, uspto.gov, Thomas Nelson