May 5, 2006 – As radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology continues to spread through the marketplace, privacy and consumer advocates are continuing their campaign for regulation of this controversial tracking technology. Now they are joined by lawmakers pushing legislation to curb RFID use by government agencies.
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Critics are primarily concerned that the tiny transmitters inserted into products could infringe on privacy by monitoring consumer habits, or that the tracking devices will become common in state ID cards, driverâ€™s licenses and passports.
The most recent battle over RFID use played out this week in New Hampshire, where Senators yesterday considered a bill to prohibit state participation in the Real ID Act, a federal bill to standardize government-issued identification across states. Though the bill received the green light in the house, senators did not approve it, instead voting 14-9 to establish a commission to report on the pros and cons of Real ID.
Privacy concerns stood among the main reasons prompting public interest groups to reject Real ID, especially surrounding the potential for future RFID requirements for state IDs.
RFID technology consists of a tiny chip and an antenna that can transmit unique information, like a string of numbers. The information can be picked up by a scanner several inches to hundreds of feet away, depending on the transmitter. So far, RFID chips are most commonly used to track inventory. But the federal government also uses the technology to remotely scan some immigrantsâ€™ visas, and RFID-fitted badges have been issued to students in a few districts, enabling them to be scanned as they enter and leave school property.
Privacy advocates are concerned that RFID tags will permit anyone with the appropriate technology to scan a crowd and surreptitiously gather information without a personâ€™s knowledge or consent.
Joel Winters, with the New Hampshire chapter of Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering (CASPIAN), said even though RFID is not yet mandated for state IDs by the Real ID Act, federal government support of the technology leads him to believe that could someday change.
"Just because they decide to go with one format now doesnâ€™t mean that they wonâ€™t change their minds down the road," Winters told The NewStandard.
Currently, the US State Department is moving forward with plans to outfit all US passports with RFID tags by fall 2006, even though 98.5 percent of the 2,335 public comments on the proposal opposed the plan when it was announced in 2005.
"We donâ€™t believe the State Department made any kind of a rational case for putting RFID tags into passports," said Lee Tien, senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a public-interest organization focused on privacy and related rights in the technology sphere. "They were remarkably vague from Day One about why this was important, and it seems at best to be a concern about convenience, which we think is a really crappy idea to sacrifice privacy and security for that kind of convenience."
Inventors working for IBM lay out plans for identifying shoppersâ€™ previous purchase records as they walk through the door and monitoring â€œthe movement of the person through the store or other areas.â€
Privacy advocates, including Tien, are concerned that RFID tags will permit anyone with the appropriate technology to scan a crowd and surreptitiously gather information without a personâ€™s knowledge or consent. For instance if RFID transmitters were buried in clothing, a scanner could determine a personâ€™s buying habits. If the transmitters are attached to driversâ€™ licenses, authorities, or possibly others, could determine who is in the crowd.
The RFID industry has aggressively pushed its technology on the federal government, winning hefty contracts from the Department of Defense and US Government Printing Office. The Pentagon recently doubled its multi-million-dollar contract with Savi Technology, a California-based company that has provided RFID products to the military for a decade.
"We see the RFID industry just like every industry: all over the government hoping to sell their goods and services too them," Tien said.
RFID watchdogs are also concerned about new commercial-sector uses of the technology. Companies are beginning to transfer use of the tiny microchip devices onto individual products on store shelves.
In one of the first known initiatives that attaches the tracking device onto clothing, Levi Strauss & Company is working with one of its yet-to-be-named US retailers to test RFID "hang tags" on menâ€™s jeans. Leviâ€™s spokesperson Jeffrey Beckman told TNS the tags will help retailers keep better stock of inventory on store shelves and eliminate the need for hand-counting clothing items. The external two-by-four-inch paper tag, explained Beckman, clearly identifies in bold letters that it contains an RFID chip.
According to Beckman, the device reads: "This tag includes an RFID chip that functions like an intelligent bar code. We are testing RFID in an effort to serve you better by improving the availability of the products you want. Please discard this tag if it is not removed at point of purchase."
But Liz McIntyre, co-author of Spychips: How Major Corporations and Government Plan to Track Your Every Move with RFID, does not believe companies will stop at such benign uses. "Now, this sounds very innocuous; you think, â€˜Well, gosh, this [tag] can come right off,â€™ but this is the opening volley," McIntyre said.
In a patent filed in 2002, discovered by McIntyre and co-author Katherine Albrecht, titled "Identification and tracking of persons using RFID-tagged items," inventors working for IBM lay out plans for identifying shoppersâ€™ previous purchase records as they walk through the door and monitoring "the movement of the person through the store or other areas." The application describes hats, watches, belts, shoes, scarves, purses, wallets, clothing, briefcases and jewelry as items that could carry RFID chips.
Another company to announce "item-level" RFID tagging is Hewlett-Packard (HP), which has been heavily involved in developing the technology and is one of retail giant Wal-Martâ€™s top RFID suppliers. In 2005, HP announced an "RFID acceleration initiative" to increase the number of RFID-tagged "consumer technology products" from "three to more than 40." While the company previously limited RFID tagging to product packaging, now it is beginning to place the devices directly into printers produced at plants in Memphis, Tennessee; Chester, Virginia; and Sao Paulo, Brazil.
Calling the tags the "DNA" of the printer, Didier Chenneveau, vice president of operations for Hewlett-Packard, announced at an industry conference last February that they want to expand item-level chipping to all printers sold in the US. The company is also moving away from the "RFID" label, since the term has taken on an increasingly pejorative connotation. HP is instead calling them "electronic product code," or EPC.
While McIntyre says companies have a legitimate reason to use RFID to make inventory control more effective in their warehouses, she does not believe corporate rhetoric suggesting it will provide additional benefits to consumers.
"In fact," she said, "we think itâ€™s going to add an additional burden if [customers] have to end up monitoring whether stores are using the technology and actually disable the technology to make sureâ€¦ that they arenâ€™t tracked."
Aside from New Hampshire, some states are considering laws that provide more oversight of RFID use. Last week, lawmakers in Wisconsin approved a bill that prohibits requiring a person be implanted with an RFID chip. The governor is expected to sign the measure. Rep. Marlin Schneider, sponsor of the bill, told the Associated Press that "companies can or will be ordering their employees to have chips implanted. We want to stop that before it begins."
Chips have been voluntarily inserted into employees at CityWatcher.com, a Cincinnati-based company that sells surveillance equipment. Other people have voluntarily had the tiny rice-sized chips implanted under their skin for storage of medical information.
Bills in other states, however, have met resistance, and watchdogs say industry pressure is to blame. In California, a bill that would place a three-year moratorium on RFID chips in state IDs that passed the senate has been stuck in an assembly committee since last year.
Similarly, the New Hampshire house passed a comprehensive bill regulating use of RFID last January. However a senate amendment stripped away regulatory powers, paring the bill down until it merely created a study committee.
Bills restricting use of RFID or requiring labeling and notification of RFID use have also failed in South Dakota, New Mexico, Montana, Nevada and Missouri. McIntyre believes that the RFID industry is not only succeeding in killing legislation regulating their products but also in overloading consumers to "make them think itâ€™s a done deal."
"Itâ€™s not a done deal; readers are not yet ubiquitous in the environment as planned," McIntyre said. "Theyâ€™re talking about putting [RFID readers] in doorways and under floor tilesâ€¦ and unless we speak up, that could happen in a few years. [But] itâ€™s not a lost cause," she added. "Itâ€™s just a matter of consumers voting with their pocketbooks and speaking up and saying, â€˜No, Iâ€™m just not going to be tracked.â€™"