Minnesota Gets a Dose of Misinformation

A writer for the city's daily newspaper has written an article full of nonsense, based on four-year-old reports he dug up on the Web.
Published: October 17, 2007

You have to hand it to Jake Perron of the Minnesota Daily. He knows how to use the Internet. Rather than go out and do some actual interviews, this intrepid reporter has turned to the real source of truth in the world today: Google.

For an article entitled Life keeps getting easier—and scarier, Perron dug up some information on radio frequency identification and cobbled together a story so full of misinformation it’s hard to know where to begin putting the facts straight. He starts off saying the Electronic Product Code is far more powerful than the bar code and will, as he puts it, “entirely decimate whatever civil liberties you still have.”

Wow. Somehow, Perron has uncovered a big story missed by The New York Times, The Washington Post and other newspapers where reporters actually call people and talk to them before writing stories.

Perron writes: “Wal-Mart, Philip Morris USA and Pfizer are only a select few among the top sponsors of a miniscule device called RFID…” Umm…as far as I’m aware, those companies are not sponsors of RFID. In fact, I’m not sure how you could sponsor RFID. It’s a bit like saying IBM sponsors the Internet, or that Intel sponsors the PC. RFID is a type of technology, not something you can sponsor.

Here’s the next paragraph in his article: “‘We’ll put a radio frequency ID tag on everything that moves in the North American supply chain,’ said Steven Van Fleet, an executive at International Paper, another sponsor.”

This reads like a real quote that Perron got by calling Van Fleet—except it’s not. Steve hasn’t worked for International Paper for several years, and International Paper sold off a subsidiary that was focused on RFID. The quote is at least three or four years old and dates back to the days when companies involved in the Auto-ID Center were promoting the benefits of EPC technology.

Now to the civil liberties misinformation. Perron writes: “To better understand the capability of these devices, suppose for a moment you’ve been pulled over by a police officer. The officer suspects you’re hiding something. Rather than asking you to open your trunk, he will be able to determine the entirety of the trunks’ contents from its RFID signals.”

Really? Well…no, not really.

Let’s say you bought a DVD player in Wal-Mart, and it had an EPC tag on it. If a police officer were to try to scan that tag through the trunk, the radio waves would bounce off the metal trunk and the officer would get absolutely no information. So let’s say the officer asked you to open the trunk. The officer might be able to read the serial number on the EPC tag with a handheld, but it would be a mostly meaningless serial number—and, in any case, the courts would likely rule that forcing someone to open their trunk without a search warrant was an unreasonable search.

Perron then piles on the misinformation, stating: “You ask, ‘what if I have suitcases stuffed with dirty money?’ Not a problem (for the police officer). Europe has developed the technology to mix RFID tags within the fibers of banknotes, and thus, they can track and monitor the history of transactions in every single banknote.”

Okay, let me clarify a few things for this dullard. First, the European Central Bank never “developed” any RFID technology for use in banknotes. Hitachi proposed using its ultra-tiny µ (Mu) chip in money, and it had some talks with the ECB, yes. However, RFID Journal reported—back in August 2003—that the ECB was not actively exploring the use of RFID in money. Yes, that’s how old the “news” is that Perron is digging up four years later.

You have to wonder how any self-respecting editor would allow a report based on four-year-old erroneous stories on the Web to run in his or her city newspaper. If one of my reporters did something like this, he or she would be fired on the spot. Perron probably won’t be, and the good people who read the Minnesota Daily rag are the ones who suffer. I hope some of them will search the Web a little more thoroughly than Perron did and find out the real story from reliable sources online.