Friday, May 19, 2006

Privacy Ain't Dead, but it's Lookin' a Little Wimpy

In a recent blog, Algernon provided some wry commentary on the proliferation of video surveillance in the United States. Privacy has indeed taken a major hit due to video surveillance, but on the horizon I see something even more worrisome.

It's called Radio Frequency Identification--RFID--and if you thought video surveillance threatened your privacy, wait until these little tags become commonplace, which seems inevitable.

Those "little tags" harbor minuscule radio antennas and microchips. They transmit an identifying number to an electronic reader, which then links to a computer database. Sounds a lot like what bar codes do, right? Yeah, but these little gadgets allow the identifying number to be read from as far away as 750 feet. According to a recent Consumer Reports article, RFID's are already more a fact of life than many of us realize: through early 2006, sales of all RFID's, since their inception into the market, totaled 2.4 billion. In 2006 alone, sales are expected to reach 1.3 billion, and by 2015, sales could reach one trillion.

RFID's are now in the new contactless payment cards, some items in Walmart and Best Buy, in library books, and in U.S. passports. As the use of RFID's proliferates, more and more information about the consumer will be available to corporations and to the government. It would appear that in the future, nearly everything we buy--from lightbulbs to lipstick, from shampoo to socks--will be traceable to the consumer's credit card. According to Consumer Reports, RFID's may soon even be sewn inside clothing, or even in the soles of shoes.

RFID's can even be inserted in people. In the U.S., about 100 people have been "chipped," mostly folks with serious medical problems. (The idea is that if you're incapacitated, an ER doc can access your medical records.)

Security is another issue. It will likely be possible for electronic eavesdroppers to glean sensitive information when data is transmitted from RFID's to readers.

The advent of RFID's hasn't seemed to cause much of a ripple with folks at large. Perhaps as long as we have sufficient multitudes enjoying their SUV's, iPods, and low-interest mortgages, the potential pitfalls of this new threat to privacy won't seem to loom too largely.

Perhaps therein lies the real heart of the problem.

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