Radio Frequency Identification Tags and Pervasive Tracking

The Seattle Press 02/18/03

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IN THE not too distant future it will be possible for a person to take a special scanner and wave it in your general direction and discover that you bought the clothes you’re wearing from REI, your shoes from Sketchers, as well as the brand names of the items in the grocery bag that you just put in your car. Not only that, but they’ll be able to tell the amount you paid for each of those items. The technology that makes this possible is Radio Frequency identification tags – (RFIDs). Companies are looking forward to using RFID tags to move and track merchandise, but what is the benefit to consumers? And is the benefit too costly in terms of privacy?

Economic Benefits

RFID tags are very small, about the size of a grain of sand—and they are becoming smaller. More importantly, they are becoming less expensive. The idea is that RFID tags will replace bar codes, but instead of being attached to a label, the tags will be embedded in the “thing” itself, whether the “thing” is an item of clothing, packages of food, cars, or other items. Merchants look forward to using this technology because they will enable the merchant to more efficiently access his or her inventory and know the location of specific items in the supply chain. This will help reduce internal theft (just where did all of our pens go?) and it will also help ensure that the purple item that is so much more popular than the blue item is in stock and available for sale to potential customers.

Another extra benefit is the efficiently of the shopping process: a customer goes to the store, grabs the stuff she wants, runs the items by a sensor and continues out the door. Her credit card would be automatically debited for the amount of the items. But she does not have to actually stop at the check out counter, she just has to slow down. Think of it as an EZ-Pass at the grocery store.

RFID tags are just now finding their way into consumer products: Gillette announced on Jan. 7, 2003 that they will be embedding RFID tags into their products to track them from manufacture through sale, and Michelin announced on Jan. 14th that they would embed RFIDs into tires.

Privacy Costs

There’s always a catch though: the potential costs to your privacy are quite severe. Consider this: if the tags aren’t disabled once you walk out the department store door, you could be tracked relentlessly through the items that you buy. All of the information gleaned from your purchases can be added to any type of profile created about you. Profiles can be used to discriminate by price. If you tend to buy pricier items, you can now be charged more for specific items.

Criminals can also gain access to scanners. There is nothing to prevent criminals from standing outside your house, scanning its contents, looking for the house with the most desirable and easily burgled items.

The Supreme Court, The Kyllo Case: The Shape of Law to Come?

This technology will also have some interesting interactions with developing case law. A case that may give us an idea of the direction the law may take is Kyllo v. United States. In this case, an Oregon man was convicted of growing large amounts of marijuana in his home. The police figured this out by aiming a heat sensing device at his home. A large amount of excess heat was measured, indicating that there might be an “indoor grow operation” in place. Based on this information Kyllo’s house was searched, and marijuana was indeed found, Kyllo was tried and convicted. The Supreme Court reviewed the case and threw out the conviction based on the fact that the use of the heat sensing device was an impermissible search by the police – Kyllo had a reasonable expectation of privacy inside his house.

This bodes well for police not being able to circumvent warrant requirements and scanning your house looking for particular RFIDs. But, also buried in the Supreme Court’s opinion was the statement that once the technology evolves so much that everyone (even individuals) has access to it, the Court might rule differently. “We think that obtaining by sense-enhancing technology any information regarding the interior of the home that could not otherwise have been obtained without physical intrusion into a constitutionally protected area, constitutes a search- at least where (as here) the technology in question is not in general public use.” Kyllo v. United States

What does this mean for RFID tags that haven’t been deactivated? Once scanners become ubiquitous, would it be okay for police to aim a scanner at your house to see what’s in it?

If consumers aren’t allowed to control when the RFID tag is disabled, there will be nothing to prevent pervasive tracking of individuals through the items that you buy. The time to speak up is now.

What you can do

• Contact Gillette and Michelin and let them know that you want all tracking features to be turned off once you have paid for the item and left the store.

• Contact the Auto-ID Center (a standards making body),, and let them know that the default should be that tracking features should be turned off when you leave the store. In other words, the default should be “opt-in” (you must give your affirmative consent to being tracked), rather than “opt-out” (you have to know you’re being tracked in order to say “stop tracking me”).
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