Posted by: nickgerlich | September 11, 2007

Chips Ahoy

It is interesting how sensitive some people become when they feel like someone is looking over their shoulder. The very notion of personal privacy is at stake here, and we have been conditioned to treat it with the utmost respect, and defend it to the death.

So it is no surprise that many folks are upset at the prospect of RFID (Radio Frequency IDentification) chips being used to monitor our comings and goings, as well as all of our purchases. One need only read Spychips to be jolted to attention.

RFID chipRFID chips are already everywhere, and may very well wind up in individual products before long. In essence, they are an extremely small piece of electronics that transmits stored information to a reader, thereby conveying the transmission of information. RFID must also be distinguished from the anti-theft chips inserted in many products; they are not the same.

If you have a toll pass on your car, you have an RFID chip in it that allows the tollroad to identify your car, and then bill your account for using the road. If you have a newly-issued US passport, you have an RFID chip. And it will not be long before all drivers licenses do likewise.

So what’s the problem, you say?

Many people raise concerns about their privacy. It is even possible to have an RFID chip inserted beneath your skin, like some people in Barcelona Spain have done, although Wired Magazine reports that these chips could cause cancer.

Scares over RFIDs are little different from what happened in the 1970s following the introduction of bar codes and scanners. People were scared their food would be radiated by scanners, and they would start glowing in the dark after dinner. Others feared the appearance of the antichrist predicted in the Christian New Testament. Today, of course, we accept bar codes as part of the packaging, and a necessary way to help track inventory.

And so people today are scared about RFID because it is something new, a phenomenon not fully understodd by most, and probably not explained very well by its proponents. Mostly, RFID allows for better inventory tracking than bar codes, because much more information can be stored on the chip than in a static image.

But that does not stop the naysayers, who fear large-scale people tracking and consumption monitoring. Imagine a future Orwellian state in which the Product Police cruised neighborhoods, aiming an RFID-reading device at your home, trying to see what you have in it.

Sure, it could happen, but the point of RFID is not some insidious plot to undermine our freedoms. It’s about expediting the flow of information.

I read Spychips and laughed. The authors are great scaremongers, even if they did do a nice job researching the subject and providing background information. Let’s face it: we already leave behind electronic breadcrumbs everywhere we go, and with every purchase we make. Wal-Mart already knows more about you and your family’s consumption than you can begin to remember.

If having RFIDs in consumer products means I can skip the checkout lane and just exit the store through a special scanner, so be it. At least I won’t have to wait in line.

Dr “Chip Shot” Gerlich

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