Tracking Everything Everywhere—The RFID Threat
"RFID will have a pervasive impact on every aspect of civilization,
much the same way the printing press, the industrial revolution and the Internet
and personal computers have transformed society . . . . RFID is a big deal.
Its impact will be pervasive, personal and profound. It will be the biggest
deal since Edison gave us the light bulb." —Rick Duris, Frontline
Solutions Magazine, December 2003¹
"Technology . . . is a queer thing. It brings you great gifts with one
hand, and it stabs you in the back with the other." —C.P. Snow,
New York Times, 1971²
Imagine a world of no more privacy.
Where your every purchase is monitored and recorded in a database, and your
every belonging is numbered. Where someone many states away or perhaps in another
country has a record of everything you have ever bought, of everything you have
ever owned, of every item of clothing in your closet—every pair of shoes.
What's more, these items can even be tracked remotely.
Once your every possession is recorded in a database and can be tracked, you
can also be tracked and monitored remotely through the things you wear, carry
and interact with every day.
We may be standing on the brink of that terrifying world if global corporations
and government agencies have their way. It's the world that Wal-Mart, Target,
Gillette, Procter & Gamble, Kraft, IBM, and even the United States Postal
Service want to usher in within the next ten years.
It's the world of radio frequency identification.
Radio frequency identification, RFID for short, is a technology that uses tiny
computer chips—some smaller than a grain of sand—to track items
at distance. If the master planners have their way, every object—from
shoes to cars—will carry one of these tiny computer chips that can be
used to spy on you without your knowledge or consent. We've nicknamed these
tiny devices "spychips" because of their surveillance potential.
If you've been staying in touch with the news about RFID, you may already know
who we are and something of the public battles we have fought to try to keep
this technology off of consumer products and out of our homes. In case you don't
know who we are and why we can make such claims with conviction, an introduction
is in order.
We are Katherine Albrecht, founder and director of CASPIAN (Consumers Against
Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering), and Liz McIntyre, the organization's
communications director. CASPIAN is a grass-roots organization that has been
tackling consumer privacy issues since 1999.³ In the pages that follow,
we'll give you a ringside seat to some of the battles we've fought with companies
like Benetton, Gillette, and retail giant Tesco. You'll see why Advertising
Age says our presence has been felt from Berlin to Bentonville (corporate home
of Wal-Mart), and you'll also learn how we uncovered plans by companies to track
consumers around stores, use RFID to spam consumers with personalized advertising,
and even monitor what people do in their own homes.
We're also suburban moms who've taken on some of the largest corporations in
the world because we care about the future our children will inherit if this
dangerous technology is unopposed. We believe consumers should know what's in
store so we can work together to protect our privacy and civil liberties before
it's too late.
We know that a Big Brother vision of the future sounds farfetched. We didn't
believe it ourselves until we saw with our own eyes and heard with our own ears
companies detailing their mind-boggling plans. We assure you that this seemingly
impossible future is on the drawing board, and we promise that by the time you
finish this book, you will be convinced, too.
For nearly three years, we have devoted ourselves fulltime to combing every
article, reading every white paper, pursuing every insider tip, and scanning
through thousands of patent documents to piece together a picture of this planned
RFID future. We've attended trade shows, sat in on top level meetings, and had
long talks with the people implementing these plans.
What we learned will shock you.
If anything you read in the following pages strikes you as improbable, please
refer to the endnotes at the back of the book. We've included plenty of references
to original source materials that should satisfy even the most skeptical reader.
In a future world laced with RFID spychips, cards in your wallet could "squeal"
on you as you enter malls, retail outlets, and grocery stores, announcing your
presence and value to businesses. Reader devices hidden in the doors, walls,
displays, and floors could frisk the RFID chips in your clothes and other items
on your person to determine your age, sex, and preferences. Since spychip information
travels through clothing, they could even get a peek at the color and size of
We're not joking. A major worldwide clothing manufacturer named Benetton has
already tried to embed RFID chips into women's undergarments. And they would
have gotten away with it, too, had it not been for an international outcry when
we exposed their plan. Details of the "I'd Rather Go Naked" campaign
come later in the book.
While consumers might be able to avoid spychipped clothing brands for now,
they could be forced to wear RFID-enabled work clothes to earn a living. Already
uniform companies like AmeriPride and Cintas are embedding RFID tracking tags
into their clothes that can withstand high temperature commercial washings.
Don't have to wear a chipped uniform to work? Your RFID-enabled employee badge
could do the spying instead. One day, these devices could tell management who
you're chatting with at the water cooler and how long you've spent in the restroom—even
whether or not you've washed your hands. There's already a product called iHygiene
that can monitor the handwashing habits of RFID-tagged employees during bathroom
Our next generation of workers could be conditioned to obediently accept this
degrading surveillance through forced early exposure. Some schools are already
requiring students to wear spychipped identification badges around their necks
to keep closer tabs on their daily activities. If Johnny is one-minute late
for math class, the system knows. It's always watching.
Retailers are thrilled at the idea of being able to price products according
to your purchase history and value to the store. RFID will allow them to assess
your worth as you pick up products and flash you a corresponding customer-specific
price. Prime customers might pay three dollars for a staple like peanut butter
while "bargain shoppers" or the economically challenged could be charged
twice as much. The goal is to encourage the loyalty of shoppers who contribute
to the profit margins while discouraging those who don't. After all, stores
justify, why have unprofitable customers cluttering the store and breathing
RFID chips embedded in passbooks and ATM cards will identify and profile customers
as they enter bank lobbies, beaming bank balances to employees who will snicker
at the customer with a mere thirty-seven dollars in the bank while offering
white glove treatment to the high-rollers.
RFID could also be used to infringe upon civil liberties. The technology could
give government officials the ability to electronically frisk citizens without
their knowledge and set up invisible checkpoints on roads and in pedestrian
zones to monitor their movements.
While RFID proponents claim they would never use RFID to track people, we will
prove they are not only considering it, they've done it. The United States government
has already controlled people with RFID-laced bracelets—and not just criminals.
And now they're planning to embed spychips in U.S. passports so citizens can
be tracked as they move about airport terminals and cross international borders.
Hitting the open road will no longer be the "get away from it all"
experience many of us crave. You may already be under surveillance, courtesy
of your RFID-enabled highway toll transponder. Some highways, like those in
the Houston area, have set up readers that probe the tag's information every
few miles. But that's child's play compared to what they've got planned. The
Federal Highway Administration is joining with states and vehicle manufacturers
to promote "intelligent vehicles" that can be monitored and tracked
through built-in RFID devices (Minority Report-style).
RFID spychips in your shoes and car tires will make it possible for strangers
to track you as you walk and drive through public and private spaces, betraying
your habits and the deepest secrets even your own mother has no right knowing.
Pair RFID devices with global positioning (GPS) technology, and you could literally
be pinpointed on the globe in real time, creating a borderless tracking system
that already has law enforcement, governments, stalkers, and voyeurs salivating.
There will be no more secret love letters in the RFID world, either—not
if the U.S. Postal Service has its way. They would like to embed every postage
stamp with an RFID chip that would enable point-to-point tracking. Even more
disturbingly, RFID could remove the anonymity of cash. Already, the European
Union has discussed chipping Euro banknotes, and the Bank of Japan is contemplating
a similar program for high-value currency. Your every purchase could be under
So could your trash. In the RFID world, garbage will become a snoop's and criminal's
best friend. Today, it's a dirty job sifting through diapers and table scraps
to get at tell-tale signs of a household's market value, habits, and purchases.
In the RFID world, scanning trash could be a simple as driving down the street
with a car-mounted reader on trash day.
How about the "smart" house? Researchers have developed prototype
"homes of the future" to showcase RFID-enabled household gadgets like
refrigerators that know what's in them (and can tattletale to marketers), medicine
cabinets that talk (to your doctor, government, and HMO), and floors that keep
track of where you are at each moment. The potential is staggering. Your insurance
company could remotely monitor your food consumption and set rates accordingly,
health officials could track the prescription drugs you're taking, and attorneys
could subpoena your home activity records for use against you in court.
Home RFID networks will allow family members to remotely track you during your
"golden years," or times of incompetence, real or otherwise. Doors
can remain bolted to keep you from wandering, toilets can monitor your bowel
habits and transmit data to distant physicians, and databases can sense your
state of mind. It's all under development and headed your way.
But chipping inanimate objects is just the start. The endpoint is a form of
RFID that can be injected into flesh. Pets and livestock are already being chipped,
and there are those who believe humans should be next. Incredibly, bars have
begun implanting their patrons with glass-encapsulated RFID tags that can be
used to pay for drinks. This application startles many Christians who have likened
payment applications of RFID to biblical predictions about the Mark of the Beast,
a number the book of Revelation says will be needed to buy or sell in the "end
While some of these applications are slated for our future, others are already
here, right now—and they're spreading. Wal-Mart has mandated that its
top one hundred suppliers affix RFID tags to crates and pallets being shipped
to selected warehouses. Analysts estimate this one initiative alone has already
driven close to $250 million worth of investment in the technology.4 Other retailers
such as Albertsons, Target, and Best Buy have followed suit with mandates of
their own. According to one industry analyst, there are now sixty thousand companies
operating under RFID mandates and scrambling to get with the spychip program
as quickly as possible.5
Adding fuel to the fire, the Department of Defense is also requiring suppliers
to use RFID. In fact, government cheerleaders can't fall over themselves fast
enough to support the technology. The Department of Homeland Security is testing
the use of RFID in visas, and the Social Security Administration is using spychips
to track citizen files. Not to be outdone, the Food and Drug Administration
wants RFID on all prescription drugs, and the makers of Oxycontin and Viagra
have already begun to comply. The FDA has also approved the use of subcutaneous
RFID implants for managing patient medical records—the same implants being
used to track bar patrons.
You may have already brought a spychip home with you. If you own a toll transponder
or a Mobil Speedpass, you're interacting with RFID every time you use it. And
if you bought Procter & Gamble's Lipfinity lipstick at a Wal-Mart in Broken
Arrow, Oklahoma, between March and June of 2003, you could have brought home
a live RFID chip in the product packaging—and unknowingly starred in a
P&G is not the only company that's tested spychips on unwitting consumers.
Gillette was also caught tagging packages of Mach3 razor blades with some of
the 500 million (that's half a billion!) RFID chips it put on order in early
2003. There's also evidence to suggest that other everyday products like Pantene
Shampoo, Purina Dog Chow, and Huggies baby wipes may have been tagged with RFID
chips and sold to unsuspecting consumers.
Why would anyone want to keep such close track on everyday objects? The answer
is simple. Businesses want the technology to give them complete visibility of
their products at all times. Having this real-time knowledge would allow them
to keep products on store shelves and know precisely what's in their warehouses.
They also believe it could help them fight theft and counterfeiting. Theoretically,
it could even eliminate the checkstand, since doorways could scan your purchases
automatically when you leave the store and charge them to an RFID-based account.
While some of these goals may sound appealing, the problem is what happens
when spychipped products leave the store with us—and find their way into
other areas of our lives.
We've read every pro-RFID argument the industry can make, and we'll be the
first to admit the technology could make things more convenient. RFID-enabled
refrigerators really could keep track of containers of food, warn about expired
milk, and generate weekly shopping lists. High-tech washing machines really
could automatically choose appropriate water temperatures based on instructions
encoded in RFID-enabled clothing labels. RFID really could help families recover
lost pets—and stolen possessions, too.
But when we look at that future, we don't see a twenty-first century Mayberry
minus a few entry-level cashiering jobs. The seamy details we've discovered
make the spychipped future look more like the ending scene of a gut-wrenching
Outer Limits episode. The RFID vision that technology companies are selling
looks too good to be true—and it is.
Buckle up, readers. We're going to take you on a high-speed, high-tech tour
of the past, present, and future of RFID, with plenty of stops along the way
at the dirty little secrets they don't want you to know.
¹ Rick Duris, "Just How Big Is RFID?" Frontline Solutions, December
2003, available at www.frontlinetoday.com/frontline/article/articleDetail.jsp?id77382,
accessed 15 April 2005.
² C.P. Snow, New York Times quote available at www.bartleby.com/63/36/3236.html,
accessed 10 June 2005.
³ With nearly ten thousand members in all 50 U.S. states and over 30 countries
worldwide, CASPIAN seeks to educate consumers about marketing strategies that
invade their privacy and encourages privacy-conscious shopping habits across
the retail spectrum.
4 Kevin Reilly, "AMR Research Finds Wal-Mart Suppliers Spent Only Minimum
Required to Comply with RFID Mandate," AMR Research press release, 20 December
2004, available at www.amrresearch.com/Content/View.asp?pmillid=17856&docid=12139,
accessed 13 June 2005.
5 Greg Dixon of ScanSource, as quoted by Mark Riehl in "Partners Needed
for RFID Success, Says ScanSource," eChannelLine Daily News, 9 August 2004,
available at www.integratedmar.com/ecl-usa/story.cfm?item=18578,
accessed 11 June 2005.