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January 16, 2006

VeriChip or dog chip?

VeriChip Home Again chip rice and dime.jpg

There are two glass encapsulated RFID tags pictured above. One is intended for human flesh, the other for the scruff of your pet's neck. Which is which?

Answer: The chip pictured at the top is VeriChip's VeriMed chip that former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson would like to see implanted in all Americans. Directly below the human chip is the animal chip marketed by Schering-Plough under the "Home Again" brand name.

There's no visible difference between the chips. They look the same, and they're both manufactured by subsidiaries of VeriChip's parent company Applied Digital Solutions. The whitish substance on the end of the chips is an anti-migration coating called "biobond" that encourages tissue growth so the chip doesn't move around inside of the animial--human, feline, or canine.

There is a technical difference between the chips that you wouldn't see with the naked eye. The pet chip contains a 10-digit number while the human chip contains a 16-digit number. I asked VeriChip spokesman John Procter why the human version contained 16-digits. His reply: "flexibility." He said the company wanted to ensure there would be enough unique numbers available for all the people it envisions chipping. Yikes!

Note: The VeriChip corporation tries to ease consumer fears by referring to the chip as being "about the size of a grain of rice." The rice in the photo above is long-grain rice--the longest grain I could find in my pantry. As you can see, the VeriChip is much larger.

- Liz McIntyre

Posted by liz at 3:33 PM | Comments (17)

January 11, 2006

RFID: a pathway to your soul?

Retail consultant Kevin Coupe of MorningNewsBeat tells us the average American household spends $1,500 a week on necessities -- along with a whole lot of useless junk. (My paraphrase.) When you combine all those households, American Demographics reports that Americans spend more each week than the entire annual gross domestic product of Finland. That's a lot of spending.

Kevin Coupe thinks it's great, since "this level of spending has helped to keep the U.S. economy relatively healthy" (though he acknowledges that much of the spending is done on credit cards, contributing to our crushing debt load). He also praises the skyrocketing growth of the U.S. population as "another healthy sign." (Hey! Yeah! Let's make more consumers! Then Americans can consume every last thing on the planet!) But the real jaw-dropper is this advice he gives to marketers about the bloated spenders. In addition to capturing their money, Coupe suggests going straight for their souls.

He writes:

These are our customers. Understanding them is the first step in serving them. And that means understanding them in fundamental ways... It means going beyond demographics.... Demographics is the study of what makes people the same. Psychographics is the study of what makes them different, and ultimately, we believe, is a better tool for figuring out a pathway into consumers' souls.

Our souls? We'll charitably assume he didn't really mean that. But RFID coupled with our personal data would be the ultimate marketing tool. Coupe explains:

We've become a culture that is able to generate enormous data on almost every customer we have....It is time for the knowledge-based retailer to serve the knowledge-based society. Some technologies, such as RFID, will make this easier...(Think of the powerful, knowledge-based marketing engine that Wal-Mart will have once its RFID efforts really get traction, and it owns banks and can issue credit cards/smart cards to its customers.)

Yes, indeed. I think of the "powerful, knowledge-based marketing engine" now gaining traction every day. But do we really want Wal-Mart owning banks and tracking people around the store with spychipped credit cards? And more importantly, do we really want them having an RFID pathway into our souls?

I don't.

- Katherine Albrecht

Posted by Katherine Albrecht at 8:14 PM | Comments (5)

January 10, 2006

EAS or RFID? New labels prompt questions

Old Navy label and tag.jpg

Consumers are finding new cloth labels in Old Navy and Gap clothing like the one in the picture above, and writing to us with the question, "Does this contain an RFID tag?"

It's a legitimate concern. Katherine and I found prototype Checkpoint brand RFID clothing labels on display at an industry trade show back in the fall of 2004, and it's clear retailers and manufacturers are very interested in tagging higher-priced items, like clothes. So I called Gap, Inc., parent company of Old Navy to find out.

Initially, the customer relations representative politely declined to discuss the label technology, saying, "The information is proprietary. I do apologize. I don't have much more to offer."

I explained who I was, told her that I thought the labels were simply EAS tags, and added that official confirmation from the company would probably be in its best interest since consumers had written to us with concerns. I also mentioned that I was planning to blog about the labels within the hour.

(Note: EAS stands for "electronic article surveillance. " EAS tags are anti-theft devices that can resemble RFID tags, but do not have computer chips with unique identification numbers and the associated privacy problems.)

She wrote down my phone number and promised to get back to me within the standard three business days, but graciously returned my call within five minutes. Here's her official comment about the label:

"It is only to prevent loss. It is not used for tracking purposes....It does not contain RFID technology at this time." (emphasis added)

(Note: At some point those labels could contain RFID tags, so we need to be vigilant.)

Any time we consumers have a question about the function of a device on or in a consumer item, we should pursue a definitive answer from the manufacturer or retailer. It not only puts the company on notice that consumers are watching, it also provides us with with information we need to make informed decisions in the marketplace.

Liz McIntyre

Posted by liz at 1:00 PM | Comments (5)

More on Viagra tagging

Pfizer 's website has a Q&A page to answer pharmacists' questions about the new RFID Viagra tagging project. It indicates that some Viagra patients may receive drugs with a remote-readable RFID tag attached:

Q: Will consumers receive Viagra with an RFID tag?

A: It's possible but not very likely. Most Viagra is dispensed by pharmacists in quantities smaller than those ackaged by Pfizer. If a consumer receives Viagra in the original Pfizer packaging and is uncomfortable with the RFID tagged bottle, they can always request the product be dispensed in an amber vial. The Pfizer application of RFID on Viagra does NOT allow the tracking of patient information.

Though taking home tagged Viagra may not be likely, why would you want to send anyone home with a remotely-readable impotence drug? Though Pfizer suggests that people could ask to have their pills placed in a special vial, the average American won't know to ask the pharmacist to do this, given that less than 10% of the American public knows what RFID is.

But here's the real question: Why is Pfizer shifting the burden of privacy protection onto its customers? Wouldn't it be smarter for Pfizer to simply instruct pharmacists to remove the RFID tag before dispensing the product to them? This would eliminate the consumer privacy problem of item-level tagging altogether, and assuage the fears of consumer privacy groups (like ours). We have already stated that we have no problem with RFID being used to authenticate drugs in the supply chain, before being dispensed to consumers. (See Section V of our Position Paper.)

If Pfizer is asking pharmacists to go to all the trouble of subjecting each Viagra package to a cumbersome authentication procedure, why doesn't it ask them to take the simple, additional step of removing the tag to ensure patient privacy, as well? The "amber vial" should be automatic.

Finally, that part about not containing any patient information is a red herring. I don't need to peruse your medical chart or even know your name to put two and two together if I scan your bag and get a tell-tale Pfizer radio signature back.

Pfizer's Q&A is online here: http://www.pfizer.com/pfizer/subsites/counterfeit_importation/mn_pharmacist_viagra_rfid_faq.jsp

Posted by Katherine Albrecht at 10:30 AM | Comments (1)

January 8, 2006

Remotely-detectable Viagra

Image source: Pfizer website

Just what every Viagra user needs -- a way for others to tell with the wave of a reader if they are (a) impotent or (b) planning a big evening. Amazingly, Pfizer is now individually spychipping every package of Viagra with an RFID tag. I doubt Viagra users have any clue their drugs are spychipped and can be identified right through their briefcase, pocket, or duffle bag.

Of course, this is a CLEAR violation of the Position Statement on the Use of RFID in Consumer Products which calls for a moratorium on such item-level tagging.

Tsk, Tsk, Pfizer. You'll soon be taken to task for this one.

Posted by Katherine Albrecht at 8:57 AM | Comments (0)

January 7, 2006

Snap! Zap! Device kills RFID tags

Way Cool! Comments on this when I get a minute.


Posted by Katherine Albrecht at 7:22 AM | Comments (2)

January 6, 2006

New device senses through concrete walls

DARPA has developed a 1.5 pound, $1000 device that can detect a person breathing through a brick wall from 50 feet away.

From the article on Military.com:

"The new 'Radar Scope' will give warfighters searching a building the ability to tell within seconds if someone is in the next room... By simply holding the portable, handheld device up to a wall, users will be able to detect movements as small as breathing....

"The Radar Scope, developed by DARPA, is expected to be fielded to troops in Iraq as soon as this spring, Baranoski said. The device is likely to be fielded to the squad level, for use by troops going door to door in search of terrorists. The Radar Scope will give warfighters the capability to sense through a foot of concrete and 50 feet beyond that into a room, Baranoski explained.

It will bring to the fight what larger, commercially available motion detectors couldn't, he said. Weighing just a pound and a half, the Radar Scope will be about the size of a telephone handset and cost just about $1,000, making it light enough for a soldier to carry and inexpensive enough to be fielded widely. The Radar Scope will be waterproof and rugged, and will run on AA batteries, he said."

Learning of this device makes me want to read Anne Frank all over again.

Posted by Katherine Albrecht at 8:57 AM | Comments (2)

Wired lampposts hit Scotland

A company called "Compliance Technology" will soon install 4,000 solar powered lampposts in Scotland to provide not only off-the-grid light, but wi-fi wireless Internet access, as well. And there will apparently be enough energy left over to sell the excess to the national grid.

According to a news article at Dundee University, where the first lights are being installed: "It is envisaged that every street lamp in the UK could be changed to solar energy over a period of approximately 3-5 years. The impact of this is enormous....Every solar panel is also fitted with the latest WIFI or WIMAX technology, powered by the solar cell."

Of course, it wouldn't be hard to build RFID readers right into those lampposts, too. Already, solar powered street lights are being equipped with surveillance cameras.

Imagine the potential of electrical power and anywhere-placement combined with Internet connectivity and surveillance capabilities. Were it not for the camouflage benefits, a snoop might be tempted to dispense with the light fixture altogether and jump right to the chase. Authorities (or marketers) could set up wi-fi/surveillance-cam/RFID scanning anywhere there's sunlight.

In our book, Spychips, Liz and I discuss places where creative companies have hidden RFID readers, like floor tiles and picture frames. (Yikes! Could the Mona Lisa someday secretly scan your skivvies?) And the thought of of an RFID reader hidden in a lamppost has crossed my mind on more than one occasion.

When I was in England last year, I was creeped out by the thought that their RFID-rigged Oyster cards could be read right through people's wallets or purses to identify them anywhere British authorities had thought to place a reader. Of course, this could be a picture frame or a floor tile, but at the time the example that occurred to me was a lamppost. "What if I'm carrying this Oyster card in my wallet and the lamppost on the corner scans me as I walk past?" That day may not be far off.

Posted by Katherine Albrecht at 7:11 AM | Comments (2)

January 5, 2006

VeriChip Corp's new competition - DIY chippers

Thanks to Steve for sending me this link to fascinating videos about a tech type who decided to implant an RFID tag in his hand: http://www.electric-clothing.com/chipped.html Warning: the pictures and videos linked at the site are quite graphic, showing things like metal rods being shoved under the skin and the suturing of slits and puncture holes.

The implantee and webmaster, Mikey, says he knows of more than sixteen other "midnight engineers" who have similarly chipped themselves, and he provides links to images of a few of those procedures, too. It seems there is some fascination with self-implanting tags not designed for human chipping, like animal tags, to do things like automatically open doors or access computers.

If you watch the link to the longer video interview with Mikey, you'll hear him acknowledge some potential medical risks associated with the implants. He raises the specter of cancer, for example. But I didn't hear any mention of concerns like potential MRI incompatibility, chip migration, or electrical hazards-- issues the FDA raised in a letter it sent when approving the VeriChip human RFID implant as a medical device: http://www.spychips.com/press-releases/verichip-fda.html.

Also absent from the discussion are the privacy and civil liberties implications of RFID implants--issues free-spirted individualists should take into consideration before plunging tags into their flesh.

Liz McIntyre

Posted by liz at 3:13 PM | Comments (1)

Help! Greenpeace ate my bank balance!

Well, not mine, fortunately. But some UK Greenpeace supporters woke up one morning to find a gaping hole where their bank balance used to be. Turns out a computer glitch tacked two extra zeroes onto the monthly donations people had arranged to have automatically debited from their accounts to support the environmental group. The result was a 100-fold increase in the debit amount going to Greenpeace. (Egads! How did my $25 donation suddenly become $2500?)

This example illustrates the risks of letting others control the money flowing into and out of your bank account. Direct deposit and direct debit both leave me cold.

Source: Error hits Greenpeace donations, BBC News, 12/30/05

Posted by Katherine Albrecht at 10:10 AM | Comments (0)

January 4, 2006

The duct tape wallet - a sign of the times

RFID-laced credit cards with names like "Blink" and "ExpressPay" are in the mail, and concerned consumers are fighting back--with duct tape. Yikes!

Desperate times call for desperate measures, and an enterprising tech type has come up with a duct-taped, aluminum foil wallet that promises to keep invasive radio waves from siphoning card data--though you might have to suffer with an oozing, gooey back pocket on steamy days. Anyone familiar with the properties of duct tape can get a mental snapshot of that pending laundry disaster.

Here's a better idea: send back the spychipped cards. Yep. Just refuse them. We've been told that credit card companies will send you the familar low-tech mag striped cards if you insist. Better still, switch credit card companies in protest and opt to use anonymous cash whenever possible.

Cash: use it or lose it.

Liz McIntyre

Posted by liz at 1:49 AM | Comments (8)