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Spychips Book Fails to Make Its Case

The anti-RFID book by the leaders of CASPIAN doesn't provide any compelling evidence that the technology is a threat to privacy.
By Mark Roberti
Tags: Apparel
Oct 24, 2005The new book Spychips: How Major Corporations and Government Plan to Track Your Every Move With RFID is meant to be both an exposé and a clarion call to the masses to stand up and oppose all uses of radio frequency identification. While it may reinforce the beliefs of those who think big business and big government are out to control their lives, the book fails to deliver on the publisher's claim that it will show "how this seemingly innocuous commercial maneuver will inevitably turn our society into a Big Brother nightmare." In fact, anyone drawing conclusions from the hard evidence presented in the book—as opposed to the theoretical propositions put forth by the authors—will conclude that RFID is not a threat to privacy.

This is a long opinion piece, because many of the authors' claims go to the heart of the privacy issue and, therefore, deserve to be examined in depth. For those of you who want to skip the details and just get the bottom line, here it is: The book does not include one single concrete example of someone whose privacy was invaded because of RFID. That's right. Not one. Even with the proliferation of RFID tags in access control cards, car keys and toll collection systems, the authors could not cite one instance where RFID tags tied to personally identifiable information was used to infringe on someone's privacy. (The authors do tell the story of a woman whose estranged husband subpoenaed her electronic toll records during a custody case to prove she was working late and not attending to their children, but the referenced article does not say whether the records were turned over.)

The book is written by Katherine Albrecht, founder of Consumers Against Supermarket Invasion and Numbering (CASPIAN), and Liz McIntyre, CASPIAN's communication director, two leading opponents of RFID. The authors rehash a lot of old, discredited material, such as the smart-shelf pilot Procter & Gamble (P&G) ran with Wal-Mart. I've already shown how no one's privacy was invaded in that pilot (see The Real Scandal). What is new is their reporting on RFID patents filed by P&G and other companies, including Accenture, IBM, Kimberly-Clark and NCR, which involve identifying people with RFID or attempting to understand consumer buying habits.

What these patents show is that many companies would like to use RFID to better understand their customers, or to identify them so they can serve them in a more personal way. That's hardly a revelation. Companies want to use almost any new technology to better understand their customers, so they can offer the things people want to buy and—sin of sins!—make more money. The authors assume that because companies want to use RFID to know more about you, they can and will know more about you. But they utterly fail to make this case.

There are three problems with the book. First, the authors either don't understand how RFID and related technologies work, or they simply hide the reality from readersin order to scare them. Second, the book almost always fails to draw conclusions from history or the real world. And third, when it does look at history, it completely misreads it. Let me take these one at a time on the following pages.


Bob Powell 2005-10-24 09:15:12 AM
Spy Chips I have read the book. This book puts the RFID puzzle together. I can not believe that You Mark Roberti did not read that. I think that being you are such a proponent that you do not care about the privacy issues involved. Hey that's me! And this is why I uploaded www.zombiewire.com and www.rfidetail.com to expose the RFID threat. regards, James Mata
Diane WING 2005-12-20 05:22:47 PM
The peasants aren't that stupid As a computer expert and marketer, I can tell you the arguments that RFID CAN'T be used for malicious tracking purposes just won't fly. There are too many computer/technology/security experts out there and the TALK to their friends. Suggest a more subtle approach since lying has been shown to really damage future credibility.
Bill English 2005-12-28 11:05:44 PM
spychips Come on. This technology can be abused just like any other technology, and given the history of similar technologies we can all be assured that it will be abused. Big Brother wasn't very nice.

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