RFID stands for Radio Frequency IDentification, a technology that uses tiny computer chips smaller than a grain of sand to track items at a distance. RFID "spy chips" have been hidden in the packaging of Gillette razor products and in other products you might buy at a local Wal-Mart, Target, or Tesco - and they are already being used to spy on people.
Each tiny chip is hooked up to an antenna that picks up electromagnetic energy beamed at it from a reader device. When it picks up the energy, the chip sends back its unique identification number to the reader device, allowing the item to be remotely identified. Spy chips can beam back information anywhere from a couple of inches to up to 20 or 30 feet away.
Some of the world's largest product manufacturers have been plotting behind closed doors since 1999 to develop and commercialize this technology. If they are not opposed, their plan is to use these remote-readable spy chips to replace the bar code.
RFID tags are NOT an "improved bar code" as the proponents of the technology would like you to believe. RFID technology differs from bar codes in three important ways:
1. With today's bar code technology, every can of Coke has the same UPC or bar code number as every other can (a can of Coke in Toronto has the same number as a can of Coke in Topeka). With RFID, each individual can of Coke would have a unique ID number which could be linked to the person buying it when they scan a credit card or a frequent shopper card (i.e., an "item registration system").
2. Unlike a bar code, these chips can be read from a distance, right through your clothes, wallet, backpack or purse -- without your knowledge or consent -- by anybody with the right reader device. In a way, it gives strangers x-ray vision powers to spy on you, to identify both you and the things you're wearing and carrying.
3. Unlike the bar code, RFID could be bad for your health. RFID supporters envision a world where RFID reader devices are everywhere - in stores, in floors, in doorways, on airplanes -- even in the refrigerators and medicine cabinets of our own homes. In such a world, we and our children would be continually bombarded with electromagnetic energy. Researchers do not know the long-term health effects of chronic exposure to the energy emitted by these reader devices.
Many huge corporations, including Philip Morris, Procter and Gamble, and Wal-Mart, have begun experimenting with RFID spy chip technology. Gillette is leading the pack, and recently placed an order for up to 500 million RFID tags from a company called "Alien Technology" (we kid you not). These big companies envision a day when every single product on the face of the planet is tracked with RFID spy chips!
As consumers we have no way of knowing which packages contain these chips. While some chips are visible inside a package (see our pictures of Gillette spy chips), RFID chips can be well hidden. For example they can be sewn into the seams of clothes, sandwiched between layers of cardboard, molded into plastic or rubber, and integrated into consumer package design.
This technology is rapidly evolving and becoming more sophisticated. Now RFID spy chips can even be printed, meaning the dot on a printed letter "i" could be used to track you. In addition, the tell-tale copper antennas commonly seen attached to RFID chips can now be printed with conductive ink, making them nearly imperceptible. Companies are even experimenting with making the product packages themselves serve as antennas.
As you can see, it could soon be virtually impossible for a consumer to know whether a product or package contains an RFID spy chip. For this reason, CASPIAN (the creator of this web site) is proposing federal labeling legislation, the RFID Right to Know Act, which would require complete disclosures on any consumer products containing RFID devices.
We believe the public has an absolute right to know when they are interacting with technology that could affect their health and privacy.
Join us. Let's fight this battle before big corporations track our every move.
For additional information, see "RFID: Tracking Everything Everywhere", an excerpt from an article by CASPIAN founder Katherine Albrecht, Ed.M. that appeared in the Summer 2002 issue of the Denver University Law Review.