Tiny Chip That Threatens Mankind
Added: Jan 30th, 2007 7:11 AM


By Kellia Ramares

What if the government could identify each and every product made on Planet Earth? What if the government could identify the specific products you own and use contain identification to tell if you had attended a political protest? If you don’t like the idea of the government collecting a huge database of phone numbers, you won’t like plans by the government and large corporations, such as Proctor and Gamble and Wal-mart, to label every item manufactured on earth with uniquely numbered Radio Frequency ID (RFID) tags.

Proponents of the technology say that it is a way to better control supply chains and inventory to prevent theft and counterfeiting; it’s just an upgraded bar code. Opponents say it is a huge invasion of privacy that can be used to track people. The development of the technology this decade, in terms of the lower cost of manufacture, the reduction in size of the chips, and the enhanced sophistication of various types of RFID, shows that the opponents have a very big point. The expanded ideas for how the technology can be used are moving away from innocent uses such as inventory control in warehouses to human surveillance uses that make Orwell’s 1984 look positively quaint.

What is RFID?

In a radio interview with this writer in 2006, Liz McIntyre, communications director of C.A.S.P.I.A.N. (Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion And Numbering), and co-author of the book Spychips: How major corporations and government plan to track your every move with RFID,[i] described RFID this way:

It’s a technology that uses very tiny computer chips, some of these are smaller than a grain of sand, to track items from a distance. These chips are hooked up to miniature antennas. The combination of the chip and antenna is called an RFID tag.

These tags can be very small, some barely visible, some all the way up to index card size. Most of the ones we’re talking about are paper-thin, they’re usually about 2 x 2 or 3 x 3 inches. And they’re so thin they can be slipped in between the layers of cardboard in a box, under the insole of your shoe, deep within products molded into plastic. Basically, anywhere, and be transparent to consumers.[i]

The miniaturization of RFID tags has advanced rapidly in recently years. In a September 12, 2003 story filed by this writer for Free Speech Radio News, Kevin Ashton, then the Executive Director of the Auto-ID Center, a consortium of over 100 large corporations and government agencies founded to further RFID technology, made it clear that he didn’t even believe very tiny chips existed.

They can’t be as small as a grain of sand. That’s not true. Typically, the size of an RFID tag is around the size of a credit card or larger. That doesn’t mean it can’t be put into a clothing label so that you might not see it. But they’re not that tiny. Gee, that would be amazing.[1]

But on the very same day that Mr. Ashton made that statement, Al Jazeera in English published an article called “World’s Smallest Microchip Unveiled” stating that Malaysia had bought the rights to manufacture the world smallest RFID chip from its developer, the Japanese firm FEC. The chip measures 0.5 of a square millimeter and, in 2003, could be produced for less than ten cents. The Al Jazeera article is no longer available online, but a similar article is available, as of this writing, on Silicon.com.[2]

Since then, there have been several notable advances in reducing both the size and cost of RFID chips, making it easier and more cost-effective to “chip” a wider variety of things. In fact, the technology has evolved to the point where the RFID “chip” doesn’t have to be a chip at all. This, from Information Week:

A company called Somark has developed chipless RFID tags based on inkthat can be injected into animals. The company claims the tags can beread through hair from up to four feet away. "It can say where [a markedanimal] has been, who it has talked to, who it has eaten with, and whoelse it has been in contact with," said a company spokesman.[3]

Using RFID to Track People

Kevin Ashton said in 2003 that RFID was not for monitoring people—and he argued against tracking people with the technology in a column he wrote for a recent edition of the RFID Journal, where he said “RFID tags should not be implanted in people.”[4] But human tracking has long been the goal of corporations that see RFID as a way to target ads to specific individuals. For example, the web site www.spychips.org has a listing a patent application for a system and method called “Identification and tracking of persons using RFID-tagged items.”[5]

The abstract of the application states that the patent is for

[a] method and system for identifying and tracking persons using RFID-tagged items carried on the persons. Previous purchase records for each person who shops at a retail store are collected by POS terminals and stored in a transaction database. When a person carrying or wearing items having RFID tags enters the store or other designated area, an RFID tag scanner located therein scans the RFID tags on that person and reads the RFID tag information. The RFID tag information collected from the person is correlated with transaction records stored in the transaction database according to known correlation algorithms. Based on the results of the correlation, the exact identity of the person or certain characteristics about the person can be determined. This information is used to monitor the movement of the person through the store or other areas.” [emphasis mine).[6]

And the patent, when granted, would not be held by a suburban hobbyist-tinker working alone in his garage; the idea is assigned to IBM. This was just one of many patent applications or patents granted for using RFID to track people that Dr. Albrecht and Ms. McIntyre list in their book, SPYCHIPS.

One can easily see the government buying such databases. In fact, the U. S. Department of Commerce had money set aside in the 2004 budget for the purpose of buying retailers’ databases, ostensibly to study the economy.[7] Unfortunately, one can also easily see the government ordering a corporation to turn over its database under a national security letter or other means that may not be overseen by a court to gather information on ordinary people in the name of “the war on terrorism.” Currently, politicians are able to access credit-card data, social-security information, census facts, magazine-subscription lists, and club card records thanks “microtargeting,” the practice of mining publicly-available consumer data to discern a voter’s political identity.[8]

RFID and Immigration

In 1994, 50,000 Haitian and Cuban refugees—the boat people—were picked up by Operation Sea Signal, taken to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba—yes, THAT Guantanamo Bay--and fitted with a black bracelet containing an RFID tag. People who tried to remove the bracelet were moved to a prison more squalid than the refugee camp.[9]

The government has already mandated that RFID technology be used in American passports[10] and in the US-VISIT program.[11]

Human Implantation

U.S. Patent Application #20040174258, assigned to Persephone, Inc. a California company, is for “Method and Apparatus for Locating and Tracking Persons” that involves an RFID device surgically implanted deep within the body.[12] According to Persephone, Inc., a shortcoming of the Verichip, which is injected into the arm, is that it can be readily removed. (Even though removing the Verichip would require a surgical incision). Persephone’s device would be implanted in such places as the head, the torso, and in women, the uterus. This raises the spectre of forced implantation through major surgery, with equally major surgery required to remove it. Again, the people least able to say no would be the prime targets of such a device: Prisoners, the mentally ill, runaway juveniles and military personnel.

No one has yet been required to accept an implant for any reason, but the states are beginning to anticipate just such a possibility. In 2006, the Wisconsin legislature unanimously passed a bill, then signed into law by the governor, that makes it a crime to require anyone to be implanted with a microchip. Violators are subject to a fine of $10,000 per day.[13] Ohio was the next state to consider such legislation; it is still pending there. Such a law is particularly significant in Ohio because an Ohio company, Cincinnati-based “City Watcher”, a video surveillance firm, has apparently become the first company in the US to implant microchips in employees. The Company’s CEO and two other employees are testing the chips as an access control device.[14] Colorado,[15] Oklahoma and North Dakota are also considering anti-chipping legislation.

State action will not deter the federal government from chipping people if, for example, the Pentagon decides to replace military dog tags with RFID. But at least these laws will offer protection to employees, students and inmates in the state from being implanted against their will.

Individuals and corporations are filing for patents for RFID chips that would have GPS capability, microphones, and even the ability to administer drugs or shocks.[16] Great for finding kidnapped people, listening in on terrorist plots, medicating patients who can’t or won’t comply with their treatment programs or stopping escaping prisoners in their tracks, right? What if that very same technology could be used to keep you from protesting a government action?

How can the government use RFID to stop us from protesting?

Chances are the government would be subtle at first. For example, the police could put RFID readers at the entrances and exits of places where people are going to gather for a political meeting or protest. They could then associate the numbers on the RFID tags worn or carried by the people entering the place to their owners through retail databases. They could keep track of who goes often to anti-war rallies, for example. They could track numbers associated participants and make further activity difficult by, say, entering those persons’ names on the “No-Fly” list or subjecting them to IRS audits. The police currently monitor protests now with video cameras. But Jane and John Q. Public who are merely a part of the crowd don’t expect to draw special police scrutiny just by showing up. However, the knowledge that the police were monitoring a rally in way that could identify everyone who was there would have a chilling effect that would keep numbers of protesters down. The low numbers could then be reported by the government’s friends in the media as indication that opposition was weak.

RFID in the Library

The appearance of RFID in libraries is also troubling. Right at a time when people have been fighting the section of the “Patriot” Act that would allow government agents to demand readers’ booklists, the Berkeley Public Library spent $ 650,000 dollars to put in an RFID system.[17] This, allegedly, was to save money on workers comp insurance; the library claimed RFID would help cut down on repetitive stress injuries by letting the patrons check out their own books. Berkeley has had self-checkout without RFID for years. But only about 15% of patrons use it. The BPL, which also planned staff cuts even though a larger central library opened in 2002, hopes RFID will move self-checkout up to 90 percent.

The library says privacy is protected because only barcode information is in the tag, and the tag must be very close to the reader. But Lee Tien, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation is concerned about the technology’s future development. As more powerful readers are developed, the authorities could use them to track the bar code and thus the person carrying the book. And the government would know what that book was if it had access to the library’s database. “The trajectory of the technology is what we ought to be concerned about,” he said.

RFID could allow the government to scan people’s bags, briefcases, and backpacks, at a rally, a meeting, a bar, an airport, a train station, anywhere, and look at what people are reading. Might a person someday be arrested for carrying the Koran or a book advocating the impeachment of the President?

How RFID is sneaking up on us

Surveys around the world show that about three-fourths of consumers object to RFID when they know what it really is. How can industry and government impose this technology on us in the face of such overwhelming opposition?

One way is by first trying it out on disfavored groups in society such as prisoners and immigrants. We have already discussed used on immigrants and would-be immigrants. In at least four states, Michigan, Ohio, Illinois and California, inmates have been outfitted with RFID bracelets.[18] If human implantation is to become a broad-based phenomenon, it will probably be started in the inmate population. Likewise, groups of people most of society thinks should be monitored for other reasons, such as soldiers on the battlefield, or Alzheimer’s patients who may wander away will be candidates for implants.

To get chips into mainstream retailing, a surreptitious approach is sometimes used. For example, the METRO Extra Future Store in Rheinberg, Germany, which opened in April, 2003, has been a living laboratory for RFID technology.[19] METRO AG is Germany’s largest retailer and the fifth-largest retailer in the world. METRO embedded RFID chips in their consumer “loyalty” cards. When this was discovered, it met with such furious opposition that METRO was forced to back down and replaced the cards with non-chipped ones.

However, the METRO incident can only be seen as a temporary victory for consumers. The RFID retailers seem to be taking an approach akin to corporations plugging genetically modified foods: Put it out there everywhere you can, fight labeling laws so that people won’t even know if they’re using it, and treat unfavorably those who are not compliant with the program. An example of the last is in Boston, where an RFID-based, stored value fare card hit the streets on January 1, 2007. People who still choose to pay cash are charged a higher fare.[20]

Convenience, efficiency and security, or belief that RFID provides these things, are what the pro-RFID crowd is counting on to wear down the resistance of consumers to the technology. The convenience of paying for things with a wave of your hand, the efficiency of the understaffed library to see to your needs, or the security of access to your computer, or securing a room at your work place without the bother of cards and keys that can be lost or stolen, or passwords that must be changed periodically and can be forgotten will trump Luddite concerns over health risks connected to implants, viruses or cloning of the devices, or misuse by business and government as the technology grows more widespread and sophisticated.

How can people resist?

The first way is to be educated on what RFID is, what is being done with it, and what is being planned for it. Here are some resources: Blog:

Arphid Watch http://blog.wired.com/sterling/arphid_watch/index.html Wired.com stays up to date on all things RFID (arphid) Web Sites: www.spychips.com a web site ofC.A.S.P.I.A.N. Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion And Numbering

Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) www.eff.org Put RFID in the search box at the top of the page and you’ll get over 350 articles on the subject, Including EFF’s position paper on RFID.

Government Accountability Office (GAO) www.gao.gov Put RFID in their search box and you’ll get 16 reports. These are of particular interest:

Information Security: Radio Frequency Identification Technology in the Federal Government, May 27, 2005 www.gao.gov/new.items/d05551.pdf

Information Security: Key Considerations Related to Federal Implementation of Radio Frequency Identification Technology June 22, 2005 www.gao.gov/new.items/d05849t.pdf

Privacy: Key Challenges Facing Federal Agencies, May 17, 2006 www.gao.gov/new.items/d06777t.pdf

Books: Spychips: How major corporations and government plan to track your every move with RFID by Katherine Albrecht & Liz McIntyre. Nelson Current ISBN: 1-5955-5020-8 Hard Cover}

Paperback edition: Plume (Penguin), ISBN: 0452287669 .

Spanish title: Chips Espias: Como las grandes corporaciones y el gobierno planean monitorear cada uno de sus pasos con RFID Grupo Nelson ISBN: 0881130664

Also a Christian paperback: THE SPYCHIPS THREAT: Why Christians Should Resist RFID and Electronic Surveillance by Katherine Albrecht & Liz McIntyre Nelson Current, ISBN: 1595550216. Information on where to get it is also on the web site.

These titles are available through the SPYCHIPS web site, where there is also information on where to find them at a local bookstore, and where to find them overseas.

Article: Op-Ed: “One Generation Is All They Need”, Kevin Haggerty, Special to the Toronto Star, December 10, 2006, pg D1. http://www.thestar.com/sciencetech/article/136744

CD: Radio Internet Story Exchange: Spychips. A 58-minute Audio Interview Program by Kéllia Ramares featuring Liz McIntyre, Co-author of Spychips. Available through the R.I.S.E. web site. www.rise4news.net

Educating the young as to the value of privacy and the indignity of being monitored and tracked is the next step. It’s especially important these days when the government claims that gathering more information is critical to fight the so-called “War on Terrorism” that people, especially the young, not feel guilty for wanting to maintain privacy. The notion that if you are trying to keep some things private, you must have something to hide should be countered with something like, “Just because I have nothing to hide doesn’t mean I want to strip naked downtown!” The fact that the overwhelming majority of us don’t have something to hide is the reason we should be challenging the government’s ever widening domestic spying efforts, not a reason the government should have carte blanche to check up on us whenever it wants.

Take steps in your own life to limit spying. Shop with cash. Avoid stores that have loyalty card programs (Loyalty cards, ATM cards and Credit Cards form the backbone of the databases RFID will hook into). Boycott stores, companies, and credit cards using RFID. Tell them that you are doing it. Support businesses that do not use item-level tags (as opposed to tags for pallets and boxes in a warehouse). Support legislation requiring labeling of RFID tagged items, and forbidding human implantation as a condition of employment, or enrollment in a school or program, or to receive a private or government benefit. Circulate copies of the Wisconsin anti-tagging law or the Colorado bill to your city, state and federal elected officials.

Organize. C.A.S.P.I.A.N. has information on the spychips web site, spychips.org, on how to organize and on various actions being taken in the US and other countries. (RFID won’t work well unless it’s adopted globally).

And think about this: What if Hitler had RFID?