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Business Technology: Authors Use Scare Tactics To Discredit RFID

If we let two publicity-loving zealots blunt the adoption of a terrific new technology, then we deserve the fate we're helping to create, Bob Evans says, because it's a short distance from stifling RFID to outlawing cameras in cell phones or banning Google Earth or pursuing a lot of other equally paranoid delusions.

OK, here's the third and final installment of the RFID Chronicles (dear readers: please interpret that use of the word "final" to mean "the absolutely positively final and very last one, until the next one, but the next one won't be for a while"--thank you). In chapter one, we reviewed some powerful RFID applications in various industries; in chapter two, we looked at some of the zany, puzzling, and positive developments in RFID; and here in chapter three, we'll attempt to understand the mind-set of the RFIDphobes who hear Rockwell's "Somebody's Watching Me" playing in their heads 24 hours a day.

Do any of you know anyone who drives a Yugo? My guess is that unless a few of them are used as bumper cars in an amusement park somewhere, the answer is no. And why doesn't anybody drive Yugos anymore? Because they were awful, miserable cars, and because 99.8% of all people are not stupid, and because the very great majority of people will not buy crappy and/or dangerous products, especially if there's a better alternative, and because in today's vibrant free-market global economy, CONSUMERS ALWAYS HAVE CHOICES!

So let's say a company called Insidious Underwear launches a line of boxer briefs under the name "Intimate Moments" and offers them in three-packs for $49.99. And let's say their pitch for charging prices at the high end of the spectrum goes something like this: "Yes, gentlemen, with our sewn-in RFID tags, Intimate Moments boxer briefs will give you that snug, comfortable, and warm feeling that comes with knowing that somebody somewhere will always--and we mean always--know where you and your undies are and what condition they're in. Worried that this info will get lost? Don't be! We at Insidious run triply redundant systems to ensure that your Intimate data never--and we mean never--gets lost."

Are we really dumb enough to think people would buy such stuff? Do we really think people would fall for such garbage? Do we really believe that free-market competition will not run such lunacy out of business quicker than you can say Intimate Moments? Or, to shift from the individual to the corporation, there's a parallel line of thinking posing that all companies--not just some, but ALL companies--somehow get together and decide to use RFID to track people around their houses or their neighborhoods or even in their *grocery stores!!*. This fantasy further feels that this evil cabal of every company on earth will then use that surveillance data to somehow screw people--"Hey, Evans, we know you picked up bagels on Sunday morning and bought gas in the afternoon before going to the movies with what appeared to be another human being later that evening--so either give us all your money, or we're going public with this info!"

Blog: Venezuelans Should Outsource Chavez: Stop the presses: Yet another demagogue who claims to be acting in the best interest of his people is in fact ensuring their continued deprivation and economic irrelevance in the global economy. This time, it's Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, whose efforts last week to torpedo a Free Trade Area of the Americas will go a long way toward guaranteeing that the technology diaspora that is slowly lifting countries like India and China will bypass Venezuela and other nations in Latin America.

-- Paul McDougall, Nov. 8

Yes, I'm being a bit of an ass here, but for once in my life I have an excuse. If you think these examples are extreme--and they are, at least by a little bit--then I promise you that they're not a single bit more extreme than the hallucinations cooked up in the book Spychips, which was the subject of a recent article and two podcasts by my TechWeb colleague, Laurie Sullivan (the article is here and the podcasts are here). Over the past couple of years, Laurie has done tremendous work for InformationWeek and now TechWeb on RFID in supply-chain and other applications, and she knows its capabilities, shortcomings, potential, and hype better than any reporter anywhere. So when I first saw Laurie's article about her interview with the authors of this book (the book strikes me as The National Enquirer meets UFO Monthly), I suppressed my very strong desire to throw my computer across the room, and I said to myself, "Laurie is doing all the things our readers value: She's being balanced and thorough and comprehensive--so shuddup aboudit." And then I read a column by former InformationWeek editor John Soat (now anchorman and executive producer for The News Show) inspired by Laurie's work. In John's column, he says, "I recommend reading Spychips; it contains a lot of interesting information about radio-frequency ID technology. For example, did you know that IBM has applied for a patent for 'Identification And Tracking Of Persons Using RFID-Tagged Items'? As we know, all patent applications are realistic and feasible. In fact, doesn't IBM have a patent for a system to organize bathroom lines on airplanes?" (By the way: I have to disagree with one thing John says, because I wouldn't recommend that book to anybody but Ralph Nader.) John also says that the book has hit No. 19 on, and he ends his column with an off-beat line that's wonderfully appropriate against the backdrop of absurdly biblical, end-of-days nonsense that the book pushes: "Maybe I have more in common with 'privacy advocates' than I think. I'd certainly rather be the tracker than the trackee--but that applies to all aspects of my life." So bravo to Laurie for bringing to light some enticing RFID-related thinking (even if some of us would describe it less as "thinking" and more as "dreaming"), and bravo to Jack for bringing not only some rigorous and insightful analysis but also some humor to the discussion of this most decidedly unapocalyptic tool.

I think it's just peachy that this book is getting some publicity and generating some discussion--the authors are making some money and getting their faces (and voices) out there in the media, and bully for them. But I also think it's great that people buy lots of science-fiction books and talk about them, and lots of other types of fiction books and talk about them--and if you ask me, Spychips belongs in the fiction category. And we all need to remember that just because someone wrote something or was featured on television or sold a bunch of books an Amazon, that doesn't mean what that person wrote was true.

What concerns me more than RFID chips in my cottage cheese is that in this case, RFID represents more than just one type of technology--it represents our ability as a society, as an industry organized around technology, as businesspeople, and as individuals to discuss and debate and decide upon challenging new issues. And if what we at those various levels are evolving toward is a situation where two publicity-loving zealots can not only indulge in their fantasies by publishing a zany book but also blunt the adoption of a terrific new technology, then we deserve the fate we're helping to create. Because it's a short distance from stifling RFID to outlawing cameras in cell phones to ordering temporary restraining orders against Google Earth to ... well, to a world of Yugo drivers who only *wish* they had a chance to wear boxer briefs laced with RFID.

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