Not Just Angels are Dancing on the Head of That Pin
Let's say you're walking out of Wal-Mart one fine spring day in the new year of 2005, an armload of purchases in hand: A couple of dress shirts, shoelaces for two different pairs of shoes, contact cement to fix that broken kid's toy, pantyhose for the wife, some canned corned beef that was on sale, a selection of Sam's Choice soda and other odds and ends.
As you walk out the door, every single one of your purchases is being entered into a massive database and linked with specific demographic information about you - your name, age, address, date and time of purchase - all without your knowledge or consent.
Within days, you start getting advertisements in the mail, through your computer, on your answering machine and on your cell phone - for shoes to go with those laces you just bought, recipe offers and coupons for more corned beef like you just purchased, a 'pantyhose of the month' club, nearby men's clothing stores that have suits on sale to go with your new dress shirts ... you get the idea.
Scary? It should be. Science fiction? No.
Welcome to the world of radio frequency identification, or RFID for short, tiny electronic devices that are so small you could hold thousands of them in the palm of your hand. So small that they can be inserted into or attached to virtually any consumer product, and then broadcast that information to any receiver tuned in on the correct frequency. Imagine your new dress shirt shouting out loud as you leave Wal-Mart, 'John Quentin Public of 4369 Money Penny Lane, West Knutbuster, Georgia, who just turned 34 nine days ago, stuck with the same old brand of white button-down 60/40 long-sleeved dress shirts that he got 11 months and 23 days ago, but he had to go up a size to a 35 collar because his wife feeds him too much corned beef - and he needs to replace his shoelaces more often.'
That is just a small example of what RFID can do - for you, but more importantly, to you.
It started with bar codes, which was a way for merchants to better manage their inventory and know what they had, where it was and when they needed more. RFID takes that wayyyyy beyond the next level, and gives the people who sell you stuff the ability to specifically track what you buy, when you buy it, and link that to all your other purchases at every other store. Wal-Mart is leading the charge on this, claiming they need better ways to keep track of the 9-bazillion kinds of crap they stock in their stores, and that they don't intend to 'fully utilize all the capabilities' of this new technology. Translation: They aren't going to start tracking you right away.
RFID can do this because of advances in miniaturization. Each tiny tag is a low-powered radio transmitter that can contain thousands of bits of data, and can broadcast that data to a receiver up to several hundred feet away. The people who sell us stuff are embracing this with open arms - Wal-Mart, CVS, Proctor & Gamble and Gillette are among the 100 top retailers who have put more than $20 million into research and development of RFID. Serious money, to be sure, but the payoff, for the retailers, will be enormous if they are allowed to proceed like they want to.
Because by adding a battery and longer antenna, RFID tags can broadcast their information to a receiver miles away, including their exact location and current status. The everyday things you buy, from toilet paper to canned soup, would in effect turn your house into a giant electronic pinball machine, with you wired into the middle of it. Privacy, as we know it, would be gone. In its place would be a massive amount of data about everything you buy, and by extension, you. Do you really want some pimply-faced computer geek who runs the consumer database for Faceless Corporation, Inc., to know that in the space of 10 days, you bought condoms, a new battery for your digital camera and some DVDs and 'other things' at Lou's House of Adult Pleasure?
Maybe some people, the ones who have had their brains surgically removed for example, would be comfortable with this. But this is America, and one of our most sacred rights is the right to be left alone, to do what we want to do in the privacy of our own homes. RFID strips that away under the guise of 'consumer service' and bland assurances that the people behind this aren't going to use all that information about your buying habits. Righttttttttttt ...
If that doesn't concern you, maybe this will - Applied Digital, a leading manufacturer of RFID tags, is already testing tags that can be implanted in a person.
That's right - you would become a walking, talking, buying transmitter, broadcasting your location and purchases 24-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week. No matter where you are or what you are doing, Faceless Corporation, Inc., would know it. The government would not be far behind. So much for our civil rights. Because once that chip is implanted, it is impossible to leave behind. You can't cut it up like a credit card you don't want anymore, you can't use cash for 'sensitive' purchases, and Faceless Corporation, Inc., would always know where you were.
As if this whole Big Brother thing wasn't scary enough, Dutch researchers in early 2006 discovered that RFID chips, despite their extremely small memory capacity, can be infected with a computer virus - which could then be passed on to EVERYTHING else that the infected RFID tag interacts with.
Why is this more than just scary?
Because RFID's can only do their job if they are linked to a database of information, say ... an airline baggage handling system ... or a pharmaceutical company's drug warehouse ... the security system for a subway network ... traffic light signal timers ... you get the idea. Just think of the kinds of chaos, confusion and possibly even death that terrorists could cause if they get the technological savvy to do so. And they will - they're motivated fanatics, remember? They already know that the entire infrastructure of our society is so complex and creaky and technology-dependent that any disruption will have an effect far, far out of proportion to its initial size.
Imagine what would happen if all the grocery stores for Denver didn't get their orders one week, and instead received thousands of cases of cat food instead. Or if all the hospitals in Houston got those groceries instead of the lifesaving drugs and supplies they depend on. Is it possible? Yes. Is it probable? Not today. Tomorrow, though, is another story.
Wal-Mart and all the other big box stores and corporate giants may be handing the terrorists the ultimate weapon they truly crave, one that will not cause mass death, but will just as surely bring our society to its knees. Way to go, Wal-Mart! Bet your shareholders are just grinning like pigs in a mudhole over that exploit.
And now it appears that these lovely little data bombs, when inserted into the human body for the supposed benefit of providing medical information during an emergency, may in fact CAUSE cancer in humans. That's right - get chipped, get cancer. But hey, they'll be able to read your vital medical stats as they start the chemo, so that makes it OK, doesn't it?
In seeking the federal governments approval to insert RFID chips in humans, VeriSign apparently forgot to include more than a dozen animal studies that clearly showed a link between the chips and various kinds of cancers. It's a good thing some people were paying attention. Finally.
It's time to put a stop to this madness ...
If you're wondering about the background image, that is an ant,
greatly enlarged, with some of the next generation RFID chips. That's how small
they are now. Think about that when you shop at Wal-Mart, and lots of
other places, starting in
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This page was last updated Sept. 8, 2007