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Privacy And RFID: Are The Tags Spy Chips?

In a wide-ranging interview, privacy-rights advocate Katherine Albrecht discusses her belief that unaccountable corporations and governments have nightmarish plans for RFID-chipping everything--and everyone.

Laurie Sullivan

November 3, 2005

5 Min Read

Consumer privacy groups have grown in strength this year almost as fast as radio frequency identification technology deployments at businesses and governments.

Spearheading the most vocal efforts is Katherine Albrecht, founder and director of Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering (CASPIAN), and co-author of the new book Spychips." Albrecht founded CASPIAN in 1999 to advocate free-market, consumer-based solutions to problems she sees as retail privacy invasion, and since 2002, has led efforts to alert the public to privacy and civil liberties implications of RFID. Albrecht said she and co-author Liz McIntyre have uncovered information on surveillance in retail stores that the public needs to know.

She has testified before state legislatures, the Federal Trade Commission, European Commission and Federal Reserve Bank on consumer privacy issues. The following are excerpts from an interview with Albrecht on Wednesday.

Click on this podcast link to download and listen to part one of a two-part series.

Click on this podcast link to download and listen to part two.

TechWeb: How do you see RFID imposing on consumer privacy?

Albrecht: The key problem with RFID boils down to how it's different from a bar code. Think about having computer chips that can transmit information wirelessly using radio waves becoming as ubiquitous as the bar code, and in some cases more prevalent. And the idea that information from the computer chips is scanned whenever it comes in range of a reader device and stored in a database is really a mind boggling concept. It's the notion of assigning every physical object manufactured on earth its own unique ID number and retailers linking our identity to the unique item numbers to keep track of what we purchase when we use a credit or ATM card.

TechWeb: Do you see anything positive emerging from RFID technology?

Albrecht: Sure, there are potential benefits to using RFID if you're in supply chain management and your job is getting widgets from point A to point B. It's effective for tracking physical objects. My concern is when you look at the tradeoff between potential benefits to society and risks of essentially privacy as we know it making it so every physical object is observed at all times. The benefits of having shelves better stocked in stores or faster and efficient product recalls in my mind pale in comparison to the potential threats to civil liberties and privacy at the notion of having a world where everything is seen by global corporations and powerful governments. TechWeb: What are your thoughts on putting RFID in U.S. passports?

Albrecht: The RFID chipping in passports is probably the first in what is likely a series of government imposed uses. Not only can you put it in passports, but now that we have the Real-ID Act it is possible for the federal government to mandate what forms of technology goes into drivers licenses, for example. We've found documentation that the federal government is looking into technologies that would enable them to scan things like identity documents in your pocket, purse, wallet, literally from speeding cars. What really frightens me is the government is looking seriously at RFID implants, injected into your flesh.

TechWeb: How do you handle the opposition to your ideas?

Albrecht: By simply saying there is not privacy risk, they're not taking adequate measures to ensure the rest of us are protected. One analogy we give in the book is if some is doing nuclear testing near a playground, you probably don't want them doing it at all. If they are doing it, you'd far rather have them say we recognize this stuff is dangerous and we've put many safeguards in place. What scares me is you have people developing RFID technology, spending hundred of millions of dollars, who are looking at the rest of us and saying, risk, there's no risk. As a result they're not taking any precautions to protect us down the road. Our children's and grandchildren's generation will look back and history will judge us based us on how we handle this threat.

TechWeb: Do you see protecting consumer privacy as a passion or obligation?

Albrecht: It's both. When you are as knowledgeable about RFID as Liz and I because we've spent hundreds of hours researching through 30,000 documents to put together "Spychips," and when you look at what these companies have planned and the nightmare vision they are painting for the future, it's difficult not to get discouraged over their ambitious plans. I have a couple hundred thousands e-mails in my in-box from people asking what they should do.

TechWeb: With all the research you did, what is the most disturbing fact you found?

Albrecht: The part that made the hair stand up on the back of my neck was when we looked at patents and information to track people. This is where it gets downright creepy. The patent is titled 'Method in Apparatus for Locating and Tracking Persons.' This involved the surgical implantation of an RFID device deep inside the human body. The company talks about planting the device in the head, torso, and deep muscles in the limbs or organs like the gastro intestinal track where they are impossible to remove without major surgery.

Click to hear Albrecht read from the patent.

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