Austin-American Statesman Associated Press — 2/4/08 Here’s a vision of the not-too-distant future: Microchips with antennas will be embedded in virtually everything you buy, wear, drive and read, allowing retailers and law enforcement officials to remotely track consumer items — and, by extension, consumers — wherever they go.
A seamless, global network of electronic “sniffers” will scan radio tags in many public settings, instantly identifying people and their tastes so customized ads — live spam — can be beamed at them. In so-called smart homes, sensors built into walls, floors and appliances will inventory possessions, record eating habits and monitor medicine cabinets — all while reporting data to marketers eager for a peek into the occupants’ lives. Science fiction? No. In truth, much of the radio frequency identification technology that enables objects and people to be tagged and tracked already exists, and new and potentially intrusive uses of it are being patented, perfected and deployed. Some of the world’s largest corporations are invested in the success of RFID technology, which joins miniaturized computers with radio antennas to broadcast information about sales and buyers to company databases. Already, microchips are turning up in some computer printers, car keys and tires, as well as on shampoo bottles and department store clothing tags. They’re also in library books and “contactless” payment cards (such as American Express’ Blue and ExxonMobil’s Speedpass). Companies say the RFID tags improve supply-chain efficiency, reduce theft and guarantee that brand-name products are authentic. The problem, critics say, is that microchipped products might do a whole lot more. With tags in so many objects, relaying information to databases that can be linked to credit and bank cards, very few aspects of life might be safe from corporations and governments soon, said Mark Rasch, former head of the U.S. Justice Department’s computer crime unit. By placing sniffers in strategic areas, companies can invisibly “rifle through people’s pockets, purses, suitcases, briefcases, luggage — and possibly their kitchens and bedrooms — any time of the day or night,” said Rasch, managing director of technology at FTI Consulting Inc., a Baltimore-based company.