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Spychips co-author Katherine Albrecht has written a lengthy rebuttal to RFID Journal’s review of her book, but still has not made a credible case that RFID poses a significant threat to personal privacy.
In her rebuttal, Albrecht says: “We didn't claim that Company X will track you with RFID. We simply point out that Company X is thinking about tracking you with RFID, and probably wants to. A good way to predict what a company is going to do is to examine what it says it wants to do.”
This is quite a different tone than the book takes, but the point made in my review is that there is a far better way to predict what companies are going to do than to look at what they were thinking four years ago—and that is to consider how they actually are behaving. My review pointed out that the book presents no evidence companies have used the tens of millions of RFID tags already carried by people today to infringe on their privacy. I also pointed out that companies such as Benetton, which had no intent to track people with RFID, backed off plans to embed tags in clothes when CASPIAN raised a ruckus in the press. (see Spychips Book Fails to Make Its Case).
Albrecht admits in her rebuttal that companies will back off as soon as their tagging plans become the subject of controversy. So my question, then, is this: why is RFID such a big threat to consumer privacy if companies will back off as soon as a few customers complain about its use in a particular way? Why should we worry about IBM’s four-year-old patent if, even if it were ever implemented, the technology would most likely be dismantled as soon as it was discovered? The answer, according to Albrecht’s rebuttal, is that RFID tags will be hidden and people won’t know they’re in their clothes, shoes, handbags and so on, which means they won’t be able to make a choice. That strikes me as farfetched in the extreme.
The book spells out how RFID tags can be physically hidden in packaging, but never points out that anyone with an RFID reader can uncover a tag’s presence. In order for companies to get away with a “master plan” to secretly embed tags in clothing and shoes and use them to track people, they would somehow have to prevent consumers, journalists and privacy advocates from ever getting their hands on an interrogator and simply reading the tags.
Even if that were possible—which it obviously is not—companies would also have to find a way to prevent the millions of people who make the tags, sew them into clothing, interrogate the tags as they move through the supply chain and collect and analyze the ill-gotten information from ever spillng the beans anonynmously on a blog or e-mailing photographic evidence to a reporter (remember: they, too, are consumers vulnerable to being tracked). Given that even minor smart shelf tests where no data has been collected on customers have been exposed, its inconceivable how tagging on such an incredibly massive scale could ever remain secret.
The authors also point out that RFID interrogators can be hidden, without acknowledging that interrogators are actually much easier to detect than a hidden video camera since readers must emit energy to read a tag. At RFID Journal LIVE! 2005, ThingMagic, a leading provider of interrogator technology, gave out a handy little device that could detect the strength of a UHF signal. It cost about $10 to manufacture. Any privacy advocates, enterprising journalists or concerned consumers would easily be able to get their hands on such a device and expose retailers surreptitiously gathering data on customers through RFID tags in their clothes or personal items.
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