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People-Tracking Experiment Offers Insights Into RFID Privacy Concerns

At a counterculture technology conference in Berlin, 900 attendees submitted to RFID tracking. The major lesson: People need to feel in control.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
The tags have a read distance of up to 10 meters (about 33 feet). To deploy the Sputnik network, 25 of Meriac's Open Beacon readers were deployed throughout the conference rooms, corridors and lobbies in the Berliner Congress Center (BCC), where the conference was held. Meriac worked with German interactive software developer ART+COM to create the Chaos Positioning System, which displayed a three-dimensional representation of all the surveyed areas, showing the location of every tag being read at any given moment.

Each tag's location was determined by measuring the strength of its signal from the reader or readers receiving it. The tags were represented by generic human figures. Live feeds of the location software could be seen during the conference online, over an XML stream. Specific tags could be located by searching for the attendee's name or nickname. If additional information was provided, such as photo or contact info, a viewer could see it as well by clicking on the figure.

A screen shot of the Chaos Positioning System application in action.

"Several people [told me they] felt funny [wearing the tag]," says Meriac. "They constantly felt like they were being watched," and this made them consider their decisions about which sessions to attend. But not all attendees had such a Big Brother experience. Regine Debatty, an attendee and blogger for the site We Make Money Not Art, says she purchased a tag and wore it, but that she completely forgot she had it on. As a result, she says, she forgot to bring it to the conference the next day.

If, at any point, participants wanted not to allow their locations to be tracked, they could simply remove the tags' batteries.

Meriac says the Sputnik experiment generated a lot of discussion at the conference about the potential benefits and drawbacks of using RFID to track people. The only way to deploy the technology in a positive manner, he concludes, is to give people control and allow them to choose how the technology will be used. "You need to be able to make yourself untraceable at any time. If you can, it can be a very useful technology."

The design for the Open Beacon tags and readers are available freely to any company interested in manufacturing and deploying them, and Bitmanufaktur is also offering consulting services to help firms deploy or customize the hardware. Meriac says he is early discussions with two companies interested in using Open Beacon to automate their production processes, but that so far, no firms interested in tracking people have approached him.

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