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Radio Frequency ID
Geoff Metcalf
Friday, Nov. 21, 2003
For over a decade I have been uncomfortable about the technology developing to erode, eviscerate and reduce the very concept of privacy to a quaint anachronism. Privacy and dinosaurs may be studied in some future classrooms, but only as interesting cultish history.

A recent article was headlined “RFID may replace barcode soon.” [See:]

So, what IS an RFID? Radio Frequency Identification is the newest whiz-bang technology that permits automatic collection of data. What kind of data? Data on products, place, time or transaction … and all done without ANY human intervention or (allegedly) error.

It will become more and more pervasive and ubiquitous and (according to some experts) will probably replace the barcode stripes on products.

A couple of years ago, in the wake of reading a spooky story in MIT’s Technology Review (, I wrote a column based on the Scribean warnings of Charlie Schmidt. [See:]

Schmidt noted, "Within a few years, unobtrusive tags on retail products will send radio signals to their manufacturers, collecting a wealth of information about consumer habits – and also raising privacy concerns."

You damnbetcha! And guess what? It HAS happened.

The inevitability of this data collection method is not secret, but it remains under the radar of most people. I confess the incremental assault on privacy has been a pet peeve of mine for years. I eventually got around to writing about it in 1998 and it remains a persistent itch:

April 20, 1998: "Big Brother's watching"

June 22, 1998: "The end of privacy"

May 3, 1999: "Internet privacy war"

May 24, 1999: "Under your skin"
I admit that when I read about this nanotechnology stuff my eyes kind of glaze over and my comprehension and appreciation of the technology is overshadowed by my deep and abiding loathing for any and all assaults on my privacy.
No, I don't have anything to hide, and no, I am not engaged in criminal activity, but last time I checked (despite the efforts of the Louis Freehs and John Ashcrofts of the world), I am still protected from unreasonable search and seizure.

So, what's the deal? Schmidt reported, "The ultimate goal is to put a radio tag on virtually every manufactured item, each tracked by a network of millions of readers in factories, trucks, warehouses and homes, transforming huge supply chains into intelligent, self-managing entities."

Hello? Intelligent, self-managing entities?

These things have apparently been around a long time. They have been used for everything from tracking cattle and trains to the recent introduction on highways of those "Fast Track" no-stop tollbooths.

Engineers have apparently been successful in reducing the cost-efficient coefficient. What that means is bar codes will become the eight-track tape of merchandise tracking; everything and anything you buy (from razor blades to soda bottles) will be transmitting data that will empower marketing managers (and nosy government initialed agencies) and critically eviscerate the concept of privacy.

This technology may have inventory, marketing and manufacturing executives jazzed, but it should scare the hell out of anyone who still embraces liberty, freedom and privacy.

If everything a person owned, from cars and guns to underwear and razor blades, was constantly linked to something – or several interconnected somethings – there would be no need for inserting a chip under your skin.

In 2000, Accenture coined the term "Silent Commerce" for a methodology that was mostly RFID-driven – "silent” " because the objects talk to each other silently without human intervention and "commerce" because it drives businesses.

Now they have ratcheted things up a tad. Now that the functions of RFID and related technologies have broadened beyond just identification, Accenture adopted another term: "Reality Online."

Although costlier than the barcode, RFID has become indispensable for a wide range of automated data collection and identification applications that would not be possible otherwise.

The major advantage of the RFID system is its non-contact, non-line-of-sight nature.

Tags can be read through snow, fog, ice, paint, crusted grime and other challenging conditions, where barcodes or other optically read technologies would be useless.

For example, in Sweden, where garbage disposal service is charged according to weight, RFID tags are imbedded in garbage cans.

RFID tags can also be read in challenging circumstances at remarkable speeds, in most cases responding in less than 100 milliseconds.

There has been some concern that RFID, if used at the retail level on the product itself, is an invasion of privacy.

Visit Geoff Metcalf's Web site at He may be contacted at [email protected].
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