© St. Petersburg Times, published April 13, 2003
In order to bring a touch of chilling realism to the film Minority Report starring Tom Cruise, director Steven Spielberg consulted a cadre of MIT futurists. The result was a world where advertising billboards spoke directly to pedestrians by name, and where virtual Gap clerks using retinal scanning asked a customer crossing the store's threshold how he enjoyed "that three-pack of tank tops you bought last time you were in?"
The film declared privacy dead in the year 2054 -- an apt prediction. But that death certificate is likely to be issued well before midcentury. The grave is being dug now, driven by government's insatiable appetite for more information on each of us and businesses' craven desire to sell us more by documenting our habits and tastes down to the last purchase.
We all have heard about the Defense Department's Total Information Awareness program, an effort to search for suspicious patterns of behavior by analyzing huge government and commercial databases. Due to an outcry over the system's intrusiveness, Congress has clipped the program's wings somewhat by limiting the deployment of the system against Americans, which can happen now only with express congressional approval. But government isn't the only danger to our privacy, not by a long shot. Private industry is where some of the real attacks are being planned. Possibly the most dangerous idea currently in development is a technology designed to someday replace the product bar code.
RFID or Radio Frequency Identification works by using tiny microchips attached to antennas. These "smart tags" are the size of confetti and can be embedded in any item from an article of clothing to a Coke can, where they can be read by a remote reader. The ID numbers transmitted by the tags relate to information kept in databases that provide detail about the particular item. RFID is already in use in New York's E-Z Pass system, allowing drivers to zip through tollbooths. But this is just the beginning. Researchers at the Auto-ID Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology see this technology as revolutionizing commerce. As soon as it gets cheap enough -- tags now cost about 40 cents a piece but are estimated to fall to below 5 cents within a few years -- every item could have a unique identifying number and other information programmed into the chip.
"The Auto-ID Center is designing, building, testing and deploying a global infrastructure -- a layer on top of the Internet -- that will make it possible for computers to identify any object anywhere in the world instantly," the center's Web site boasts. Manufacturers in a globalized economy see RFID as a boon to inventory control, enabling them to track an item through the entire supply chain. But there are other, more intrusive uses for the technology, which is why the center's sponsors include not only a who's who of American business such as Procter & Gamble and Kraft but the Defense Department and the U.S. Postal Service.
Think about the ways this technology could be abused: Marketers would love to be able to watch the way consumers use products -- how often a particular sweater is worn or when it is thrown away, for example. By making RFID receivers as ubiquitous as security cameras, companies would be able to follow their merchandise where ever it goes.
And so would the government. It would be an easy jump to connect items to the consumers who bought them, and with that information the government would be able to track not only the things you buy but the places you go. There would be no need for faulty face-recognition technology. As one entered a public venue such as a stadium or library, an RFID receiver could determine who bought the items of clothing each person is wearing as well as everything they are carrying, and connect the dots.
The two areas of anonymity Americans still possess -- in the use of cash and the mail -- could easily be defeated with smart tags embedded in stamps and currency. Already the media have reported some interest by the European Central Bank in using RFID tags implanted in the fibers of euros as a means of controlling counterfeiting. And while there is no talk of this happening here yet, the notion has to be irresistible to the U.S. government, which has tried desperately for years to figure out ways to defeat the anonymity of cash. With RFID, the physical movement of each bill could be read.
Katherine Albrecht, a national consumer privacy researcher and activist, says that if RFID were utilized in stamps and letters, even shredding correspondence before putting it in the trash wouldn't be a protection against its source and, potentially, even its contents being known.
If you think this specter is a remote possibility, think again. The clothing maker Benetton is currently testing RFID for possible use in tracking its garments through the supply chain. A March 11 press release from Philips Semiconductor announced it expected to provide Benetton in 2003 with an estimated 15-million RFID tags for that purpose, though a Benetton spokesman says there are no current plans for such an order. Frederico Sartor, Benetton's media relations manager, says if the company does decide to adopt RFID, it would address privacy concerns by implanting the chip in a tag that could be cut off at point of purchase. It appears, pressure from a boycott of Benetton launched by privacy advocates and persistent media inquiries have had some effect.
To the retail world we are all walking wallets. If profit is at stake, other values such as individuality and keeping a respectable distance become indulgences to be disregarded. Add to this the confluence of interests between commerce and government -- both seeking to observe our lives in a highly intrusive way -- and you have a society with no powerful ally for privacy. 2054 my foot. Try 2005.