RFID chips, also known as RFID tags, are being touted as the greatest invention for retailers since the bar code. A tiny computer chip can be embedded in any product for sale, or the package it comes in, to uniquely identify it. In a store such as Wal-Mart, a company seriously interested in the technology, an RFID scanner sends out a radio signal, and each chip responds. The retailer has just taken inventory, saving a great deal of work. As great as this may sound, there is a dark side to this technology. The chips are still in the products after you leave the store, and who knows who might have an RFID scanner?
If a little old lady asks, "What do I do if I go outside, and muggers scan me to find out what I have?" How can a clerk convince her she is safe? He can't. Her fears are justified. That is not all. Government agents could use this technology to keep tabs on everything we buy and sell even if we use cash. RFID tags could help make Terrorism Information Awareness, formerly Total Information Awareness a reality. They are a serious threat to personal privacy. If tagging products weren't bad enough, The European Union is considering embedding them in Euro notes. Muggers will love that.
I tried to talk to several manufacturers of this technology in the hope that they could allay my concerns. Many told me that the chips have a very limited range, and because of this, there is no cause for alarm. They frequently referred me to an industry information website. The site only promotes RFID, even touting the tags as a way to prevent shoplifting. It was clear that I would get no straight answers to my questions from the industry, so I sought out experts who weren't trying to market this product. Dr. Mitchell Ridgeway, a surveillance and privacy consultant, spoke to me at length.
"Some in the industry," he told us, "say that they can turn the tags off, but that would be only done for consumers who are aware of them, and deliberately ask. Only a few will even be aware that RFID tags exist, and in today's paranoid society where everyone suspects everyone, they may not dare ask to have the chips disabled, as it will arouse suspicion. Now is the time for everyone to tell Wal-Mart, Congress, and manufacturers of consumer products that we won't tolerate this invasion of privacy, or this threat to our personal security, and will vote with our wallets. Money talks."
I asked him how we could disable the chips ourselves if retailers won't, or we are afraid to be labeled a suspected terrorist for asking them to. "If you put any non-metallic item in the microwave," he told me, "Ten seconds or so should take them out, but could melt some things. As common sense should dictate, never put metal in a microwave. You could start a fire. Products will doubtlessly be developed that promise to take out the chips without risking them in a microwave oven, but many of them will be frauds that only provide a false sense of security. I imagine that they will be sold by places like The Survival Shack, which I read about on your website."
I contacted Ray Brantley at The Survival Shack, and he confirmed that he would sell such products as soon as he could get his hands on them.
UPDATE: Public pressure has worked. Wal-Mart has decided not to proceed with their "Smart Shelf" RFID testing, but still plans to use them in their warehouses. A public uproar in the U.K. has convinced Gillette to rethink using RFID chips. If consumers keep the pressure on, perhaps all RFID chip rollouts will be scrapped, but they could easily start up again if public anger evaporates. The Uncover will continue to keep an eye on the industry.