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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
Misreading History
Toward the end, the book switches from discussing the use of RFID for marketing to more sinister abuses, such as stalking women (discussed above) and utilizing the technology to figure out whom to rob (seems to me that thieves have been doing just fine without RFID for many years now). Then, we come to the "Nightmare Scenario," in which governments take advantage of all the tags in clothing items to track and control people.

The authors could look at the world today and see that North Korea, the most technologically backward society on earth, is the most totalitarian, and that the most technologically advanced countries are the freest. They could also examine history and see that neither the Soviet Union, the People's Republic of China nor Nazi Germany used technology to control people. Such observations might lead them to conclude correctly that RFID will not inevitably lead to totalitarianism.

Alas, history is no guide for these authors: "When the low-tech world goes bad," they write, "as it did in Nazi Germany, it's a nightmare, but when the RIFD world goes bad, the nightmare could permeate every aspect of its victims' lives, making camouflage and escape all but impossible. RFID could fulfill dictators' wildest evil dreams, providing near total omniscience and control over every aspect of society. When RFID goes bad, it will be unlike anything we’ve seen before."

Sounds pretty scary, especially the certitude that things will go bad in the future if we adopt RFID. Too bad their premise is based on shallow thinking.

The authors point out that during World War ll, some Jews removed the Star of David they were forced to wear and disguised themselves as non-Jewish Germans to survive. With RFID, they claim, no such ruse would be possible to escape a dictator because Big Brother would use RFID tags in your clothes, and maybe even embedded in your body, to identify you and track you. So even though it’s easy to destroy RFID tags, remove them from under the skin, detect and jam readers, destroy data with computer viruses and so on, the reader is led to believe that no one in the future would be able to figure out how to do such things.

Moreover, the authors fail to understand that totalitarianism is not about tracking people and never has been. It's all about intimidation and control of information, both internal and external. During World War II, Germans had no means of getting news of Hitler’s atrocities to the outside world. Dictators—such as Stalin in the Soviet Union and Mao during the Chinese Cultural Revolution—have always depended on complete control of information and secrecy, by and large, from the outside world. With the Internet, satellite TV, cell phones and other ubiquitous forms of communication in advanced society, however, such secrecy is no longer possible. If dictators tried to take over a democratic country, opponents would have the means to respond in ways unlike anything dictators have seen before. In other words, technology will save us, not enslave us.

In fact, CASPIAN's success in raising awareness about RFID and getting big companies to back down from plans to tag clothes is evidence that information technologies can be used to spread the word about potential abuses of RFID and, on a small scale in this case, organize people to oppose something.

So now imagine a world where RFID is ubiquitous and people are forced to have functioning tags in their clothes. Retailers have deployed interrogators to gather data on their customers or better serve them (depending on how you view things). But a dictator overthrows a democratic government and decides to use RFID to track people and squelch opposition. How does he do that? Does he seize all the databases so he knows the ID tags in his political opponents' clothes? That would be damaging to the companies, so they might not be too supportive of this dictator, but what about all the people in those companies with the lock codes? They could publish those on the Internet, and people could change the numbers in the tags, rendering the databases useless. A very simple process, actually.

The authors claim a dictator could mandate that tags not be killed, so perhaps the dictator could mandate that tags not be rewritten. But the point they miss is that digital information is nearly impossible to control, no matter how powerful you are. You only have to look at how hackers are able to do so much damage to corporate networks despite the billions spent to stop them, or how music companies and movie studios are struggling—and largely losing the battle—to prevent the sharing of songs and movies over the Internet. The only way to control the flow of information would be to shut down the Internet. But if you did that, then RFID readers couldn’t be used to track anyone. You'd wind up with just a bunch of boxes going 'beep' as a leader of the opposition walked by. What use would that be to anyone?

Still, the book does expose a threat to consumers, and it's not what you might think.

USER COMMENTS

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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