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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.
Misrepresenting the Technology
If you read this book and don't know any better, you are led to think that all RFID tags will be read and associated with an individual and that information will immediately be uploaded to a giant database in the sky, accessible to anyone. "Once all the billions of items on the planet contain [RFID transponders], theoretically, the whereabouts of everything and everyone will be known at all times and accessible to anyone with access to the databases, authorized or otherwise."
Theoretically, lots of things are possible, but in the real world, companies don't share information about their customers with other companies. Do the authors really believe Philips will make data available on its customers so Sony can do a Google search and learn everything it needs to know to steal those customers away?
The authors also lead the reader to believe that every time an RFID tag is read, that automatically constitutes an invasion of your privacy, even if you are completely anonymous. For instance, the authors present a patent application filed by NCR in which a smart shelf could track when a customer picks up a can of corn and either puts it back on the shelf or puts it in their shopping cart. This tracking could be done completely anonymously and still be of tremendous benefit to manufacturers. For instance, a manufacturer could learn that of 1,000 anonymous people who picked up its product and put it down, 78 percent subsequently picked up a lower-cost alternative.
The authors find it outrageous that an RFID interrogator in a shopping cart could detect that a customer (who could be completely anonymous) put a high-end brand of pasta in their cart, and that the interrogator could then send a message to a computer screen mounted on the cart recommending a high-end brand of tomato sauce. This might annoy some customers, but it's no different from a salesperson in a clothing store suggesting you try on a pair of Prada shoes based on the fact that you have been looking at Armani suits.
Sometimes, the discussion of potential abuses is downright silly, because of the authors’ failure to think through how RFID systems work. For instance, in a chapter on the potential uses of RFID by stalkers and perverts, the authors mention that one problem modern-day peeping Toms have is that when they install cameras in a female shower stall or under the desk of a female colleague, the cameras use a lot of energy and the batteries die quickly. They suggest RFID could be used to conserve battery power—that the camera would turn on only when an RFID tag in a garment worn by the stalking target was detected by an interrogator.
But there are a couple of problems with this RFID-enabled peeping Tom system. First, it assumes people will agree to wear garments with functioning RFID tags in them, which is by no means a given. More important, a battery in the RFID interrogator would run out just as fast as a battery in a camera because it would have to emit radio waves constantly to detect a tag entering its field.
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