December 20, 2003

Santa's Reindeer Tracked with Radio Frequency Devices
"Once they've secretly tracked heads of state, everything's game"

Here's a riddle: What do Santa's reindeer and heads of state have in common? Give up?
The answer is they have all have been tagged with radio frequency devices.

Prime ministers, presidents and other high-level officials from around the world were secretly tagged with RFID-enabled identification badges at a recent technology summit, the Washington Times revealed last week.
(Full story at; follow-up

"We're shocked at how quickly this technology has gone from tracking animals to tracking presidents," said Katherine Albrecht, Founder and Director of Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering (CASPIAN). "Just as we were settling in to enjoy the holidays we learn this shocking news. What's next, tracking Santa's elves?"

The revelations come as no surprise to Arctic reindeer that have had to put up with radio frequency tracking devices for years. Reindeer privacy has been a thing of the past ever since researchers began fitting them with special collars that transmit information about their location and movements. A special feature of the collars is a mortality sensor that
detects whether they are alive or dead.

Attaching a radio collar to a reindeer

Snowmobiling scientists now regularly cruise the frozen north wielding giant antennas that can track the reindeer's habits from as far away as 6 kilometers.

"It's like we've been put under a microscope," lamented one of Santa's reindeer employees who declined to give his name. "Even in the off season, when we're supposedly free to roam the tundra, we can't relax because we know Santa's got his eye on us." Santa was unavailable for comment due to pressing work commitments.

Scientist searches the north for reindeer radio signals.

Fortunately for officials attending the World Summit on the Information Society in Geneva earlier this month, the radio tracking devices affixed to them were substantially less powerful than those affixed to reindeer. Unlike reindeer collars, the dignitaries' ID tags had a read range of only a few centimeters, and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) that hosted the event passed on the mortality sensors (though in retrospect, they might have been useful during the more tedious summit sessions).

"We think they got off easy this time," said an unnamed reindeer source.

Holiday joking aside, Albrecht points out that the secret RFID devices were a serious breach of security. "The diplomatic community should be alarmed to discover that the ID badges issued to high-ranking officials contained this controversial technology," she said. "Fortunately, this time the read range was short and data collection was apparently limited, but it illustrates how easy it is to slip tracking devices into seemingly innocent items. This incident shows that no one is immune -- not even world leaders with highly trained security staffs."

Badges and plastic cards with longer read ranges could be used to pinpoint a person's precise location at every moment of an event using triangulation and a network of sensors hidden in carpeting, doorways, and exhibits. Such a system could create an obvious risk for personal security, above and beyond the privacy implications. If security conscious dignitaries are at risk from such systems, imagine how vulnerable consumers feel, especially now that companies like MasterCard are planning to embed RFID technology in credit cards.

"During the holidays we should be sitting in front of a warm fire enjoying mulled cider, instead of worrying about whether the gift card in our Christmas stocking could double as a tracking device," said CASPIAN spokeswoman Liz McIntyre. "We've been fielding inquiries from consumers concerned about the Summit security breach and the recent press stories about MasterCard's RFID-embedded credit cards. There's a sense that once they've secretly tracked heads of state, everything is game."



home | overview | faq | blog | press | get involved | about us

The Spychips website is a project of CASPIAN, Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering.
2003-2007 Katherine Albrecht and Liz McIntyre. All Rights Reserved.