Computers, Privacy & the Constitution

RFID and Me

-- By AustinLeach - 19 May 2012


If the government has not done so already, it won’t take long to circumvent the holding of United States v. Jones. In Jones, the Supreme Court held that the government cannot track a suspect with a GPS device unless it has a valid warrant. However, given the large number of requests that phone carriers receive from law enforcement agencies on a yearly basis, and continued developments in RFID technology, the holding in Jones will be obsolete if consumers continue to trade privacy for convenience.

RFID chips

RFID tags are small chips that can transfer data from objects using radio-frequency electromagnetic fields, for the purposes of automatic identification and tracking. Usage has increased due to the decreased cost of equipment and tags, increased performance reliability, and a stable international standard around UHF passive RFID. RFID tags have many purposes related to tracking, most of which have some kind of commercial purpose. Additionally, in 2004 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the use of RFID in humans.

Privacy concerns with certain implementation of RFID

As RFID provides very few benefits to actual consumers—namely, convenience and speed—privacy concerns related to the chips are insurmountable. For example, the major credit card companies have implemented RFID technology in some of their cards. Such “contactless” cards allow consumers to wave them in front of special readers or swiped through traditional terminals. Yet, as both Forbes and the Identity Theft Resource Center report, these cards contain pertinent account information, such as the customer’s name, account number, and credit card expiration date, and can be easily hacked by spooks. Although the credit card companies stress that actual credit card fraud is unlikely, they strong-armed the Discovery Channel into nixing a Myth Buster’s episode exposing the ease with which RFID credit cards could be hacked.

RFID tech in credit cards is only the tip of the iceberg. Just recently in a NY1 visit to the AT&T Labs, the telecom superpower showcased its recent developments on a program called Got My Stuff. Consumers tag certain devices— wallets, briefcases, house keys, etc.—with RFID tags, and a program built into the consumer’s car will notify the user what’s missing. The technology, should it be fully implemented, would allow AT&T (and probably any of the licensees of the technology) to see exactly what consumers carry with them in their day-to-day routines.

RFID has could potentially have dire consequences for privacy when tags are implanted in humans. As stated above, the FDA approved the use of RFID in humans, on the grounds that it could conveniently speed vital information about a patient’s medical history to doctors and hospitals. However, that information can be stolen by spooks, and misused by governments and other third parties as highly effective tracking devices. Authoritarian governments could potentially use the technology on all of its citizens, and thereby tracking people all the time.

No regulation

Unfortunately, any regulation of RFID is an impossibility, as it is ripe with commercial and intelligence-gathering potential . Credit card, telecommunication, manufacturing, and other special interest groups would likely prevent any meaningful legislation that aims to curb their use, or third party use, of the information. In the not too distant future, a consumer could have most of his belongings tagged with RFID and tracked, not only in his home internet network by a company like AT&T, but in his car, in his place of business, in the subway, and in local NYC parks rigged with Wi-Fi. Big data would continue to grow, as companies—with the knowledge of what products consumers already own, what they need, and what they want—fine tune and target their advertising to consumers in a highly personal fashion that ignores their privacy and anonymity.

Governments, both benign and malign, would benefit greatly from a world where every device, appliance, and consumer good is constantly tracked. Under the guise of “national security,” the rapid expanse of RFID allows governments to watch their citizens’ movements, sometimes from right underneath their skin. Furthermore, government won’t have to do the spying itself. It will submit requests and subpoenas to telecom companies, and any other company involved in the RFID industry, to get a suspects in a benign society, and control its citizens in a malign one.

The tradeoff

Consumers will be tempted by the supposed ease of RFID. It will be packaged as something consumers didn’t know they “needed,” and as something necessary going forward. Companies will then present consumers with the hardware and software to read these chips, under the guise of creating a unified home network experience. Governments will install RFID readers in populated public places, perhaps instead of security cameras.

All of the above will be done for convenience, but is it worth it? Now, more so than ever before, consumers need to take an active role in understanding generally how their products function, and for whom their products function.

You are entitled to restrict access to your paper if you want to. But we all derive immense benefit from reading one another's work, and I hope you won't feel the need unless the subject matter is personal and its disclosure would be harmful or undesirable. To restrict access to your paper simply delete the "#" character on the next two lines:

Note: TWiki has strict formatting rules for preference declarations. Make sure you preserve the three spaces, asterisk, and extra space at the beginning of these lines. If you wish to give access to any other users simply add them to the comma separated ALLOWTOPICVIEW list.


Webs Webs

r4 - 11 Jan 2013 - 21:48:53 - IanSullivan
This site is powered by the TWiki collaboration platform.
All material on this collaboration platform is the property of the contributing authors.
All material marked as authored by Eben Moglen is available under the license terms CC-BY-SA version 4.
Syndicate this site RSSATOM