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Are You Chip-Ready?

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Radio frequency identification, or RFID, technology is inching its way into our daily lives, often without our knowledge. Corporations have been working since 1999 to replace product bar codes with tiny electronic transmitters, or tags, claiming that they advance safety and convenience.

RFID chips differ significantly from bar codes and their uses are far more ominous. Bar codes identify only the type of product. Microchips, in contrast, have a unique serial number that can hold greater amounts of data and transmit the information faster and from greater distances. They can be read through packaging, without contact with the reader, making it more convenient to obtain the data and also enabling retrieval by individuals other than the intended recipients.

Chips embedded in passports, many ATM cards, contactless ("touch and go") payment cards, library books, and toll cards are read by reader devices hidden in doors, walls and other places. In 2004, the Food and Drug Administration approved the VeriChip Corporation's request to use RFID chips in humans for safety-related uses, such as linking to medical records. Although marketed to Alzheimer's patients who may wander from home and at medical first responders, the chips lack GPS tracking devices and may be difficult to read in ambulances where ambient radio frequency emissions may interfere.

Bars in Spain and Holland have held "implant nights" where clientele injected with implants can skip long waiting lines--bar owners say it gets rid of the need to carry a wallet and identification cards. Chips are also making their way into schools. Students can't play hooky any more at Northern Arizona University, which has purchased an $85,000 system to monitor attendance using the tags embedded in student identification cards. Card readers will be installed in classrooms seating 50 or more; students can leave the cards in their wallets because the readers pick up signals from anywhere in the room. Data is recorded and teachers get an attendance report.

Identity theft, stalking, and invasion of privacy are some of the obvious casualties of RFID technology. Applications with the U.S. Patent Office reveal even more insidious possibilities, such as releasing cattle prod-like jolts from a distance to stop individuals in their tracks.

More dangerous are risks of government spying and serious security breaches. An overreaching government that already conducts wiretapping and monitoring of Americans may more easily track the everyday activities of individuals based on their political views, from books read, to medicines prescribed, to political rallies attended. In terms of security, the chips are far from hack-proof. In 2006, software and security researcher Jonathan Westhues exposed the security problems with RFID-based ID cards. Hired by California State Senator Joe Simitian to show how easily lawmakers' cards could be read, Westhues created a hand-held device that read and cloned the card of California State Assembly member Fran Pavley in just a few seconds. That same year, the Dutch television program "Nieuwslicht" worked with the security firm Riscure to crack and decrypt a Dutch-prototype RFID passport.

Critics Katherine Albrecht and Liz McIntyre, founders of CASPIAN (Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering) and authors of Spychips: How Major Corporations and Government Plan to Track Your Every Purchase and Watch Your Every Move, coined the term spychips and cite two primary privacy concerns: personal information is gathered without an individual's knowledge, and a tagged item purchased by a credit card or "loyalty" card may identify the purchaser by scanning the unique ID number of the item as contained in the tab.

Given the security and privacy threats posed by the far-reaching use of RFID tags, consumers need to be aware of the extent to which personal data may be compromised. Individuals should demand that manufacturers identify products with embedded RFIDs, and should ask banks to issue chip-free ATM and credit cards. Local lawmakers should introduce and support legislation requiring security and privacy measures for RFID tags in local and state-issued identification cards. Only a vigilant public can prevent us from becoming an RFID-embedded society monitored by corporations and the government.