Fearmongering Is Alive and Well

An Associated Press article presents a grossly inaccurate view of radio frequency identification in an effort to scare uninformed readers.
Published: February 4, 2008

Just when I thought it was safe to read stories on radio frequency identification again (see Coverage of RFID Issues Is Improving), Todd Lewan of the Associated Press strikes again.

In 2007, Lewan wrote an erroneous and misleading article linking implanted RFID transponders to tumors in lab mice (see VeriChip Defends the Safety of Implanted RFID Tags). Now, Lewan has drafted another article (“Businesses praise chips as privacy groups worry”) attempting to scare the bejesus out of people by presenting a highly biased and grossly inaccurate view of RFID and how it will be used in the future—and not backing up his claims.

Here’s a sample: Lewan opens the article with “a vision of the not-so-distant future.” He writes that in “Smart Homes, sensors built into walls, floors and appliances will inventory possessions, record eating habits, monitor medicine cabinets—all the while, silently reporting data to marketers eager for a peek into the occupants’ private lives.”

He also writes, “new and potentially intrusive uses of it are being patented, perfected and deployed.” Really? I know people have patented some ideas for monitoring shopping habits. But I don’t know of any that have been perfected and deployed. And neither does he, apparently, since he does not describe any in his article.

Lewan quotes Mark Rasch, former head of the computer-crime unit of the U.S. Justice Department, as saying: “With tags in so many objects, relaying information to databases that can be linked to credit and bank cards, almost no aspect of life may soon be safe from the prying eyes of corporations and governments.”

Really? Who is doing this? Who is even proposing to do this? Lewan doesn’t name names because, of course, the answer is “no one.” EPCglobal guidelines say not to—and frankly, if companies were to try, the government would likely step in and stop them anyway.

Lewan also quotes Rasch as claiming that by placing sniffers in strategic areas, companies can invisibly “rifle through people’s pockets, purses, suitcases, briefcases, luggage—and possibly their kitchens and bedrooms—anytime of the day or night.”

Really? What strategic areas? What would a company gain from doing this sort of thing? And why wouldn’t this be easily exposed, publicly embarrassing the firm, damaging its brand and costing it hard-earned customers?

The story continues to bring up old nonsense about criminals using RFID technology to figure out whom to rob, and so forth. It would be laughable if it weren’t for the fact that the article was picked up by newspapers around the world that are desperate for a good story—even one that’s patently untrue.

Lewan knows his article is full of nonsense, and I know he knows that because I spent about an hour with him at RFID Journal LIVE! 2007 in Orlando. I could tell, right off the bat, that he was out to write a sensational article, not a serious story, and I shot down every scenario he brought up. None of my arguments made it into the article, of course, because people then would have heard the sense in what I said, and the article would have lost all its zing.

Lewan told me (and I’m paraphrasing) that his title is “investigative reporter,” which means he has to write stuff that is highly charged. Apparently, that doesn’t involve actual investigating and telling people the truth—that RFID is not nearly the threat to privacy that some would have you believe.

As a journalist, I find it appalling that someone would knowingly write something they realize to be untrue. I understand the desire to write sexy stories, of course, but I don’t agree with the view many journalists these days (strangely) have that sexy, unfounded stories make for good reads, and that factual accuracy is irrelevant.

I don’t think Lewan’s article alone could turn people off RFID—but what if some legislator in Washington were to read it and decide he had to put a stop to this supposed threat to privacy? What if this legislator then managed to get a law passed, mandating that RFID tags had to be killed at checkout or else could not be used on consumer products? As a result, people could die because counterfeit drugs or tainted meat could no longer be tracked and recalled. God forbid one of those people was Lewan’s son or mother or wife. Is it worth writing a good story that is untrue, if death could be the end result?