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How many rights will you give up?

A father stops the family minivan at a roadside checkpoint. Uniformed men, armed with assault rifles, watch idly as one of their number leans in to speak with the driver through the van’s window.

“Your papers, please?”

Growing nervous at this official scrutiny, the man does as he’s told, handing over his travel vouchers, his identification and an itinerary.

“Where are you coming from?” the rifle-toting man asks, sounding bored. “Where are you going? Duration of your stay? Do you have the necessary permits? You understand that you must check in when you reach your destination, yes?”

As the armed government functionary peruses the documents, pausing to look over the man’s family and eye his vehicle with obligatory but perfunctory suspicion, this father of two and husband of 15 years can’t help but wonder: Is this what the Founding Fathers had in mind? In a free country, how is it that even the basic freedom to travel from place to place is so heavily regulated, tracked and controlled?

Such a scenario would rightly outrage American citizens were it to play out as just described. The reality, however, is that government tracking and control of the nation’s populace is becoming more and more feasible. As the technology used to track a citizen’s movements becomes less invasive and more convenient, more and more people volunteer to introduce this technology in their daily lives – or passively accept it when it is offered.

Take New York, a bellwether state whose policies and cultural trends affect from the East Coast those sociopolitical movements that California affects from the opposite shore. The state government has begun offering “enhanced” drivers licenses ahead of a deadline requiring passports for travel from New York to neighboring Canada and back. The “enhanced” licenses are part of a deal made with Homeland Security to meet the requirements of the department’s Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative. The licenses contain a Radio Frequency Identification, or RFID, chip, pervasive technology that is growing more and more common.

An RFID tag allows data to be read at a distance. When you “tap” your credit card at a checkout terminal, wave a gas company’s electronic keychain fob at the gas pump, drive through a New York E-ZPass (or a Massachusetts Fast Lane, or a Virginia Smart Tag, or an Illinois I-Pass, or an Indiana i-Zoom) toll lane, RFID technology is being used to read data (from, for example, the transponder attached to your car’s windshield). Employees at many businesses across the country already use similar technology to “badge in” and “badge out” of their secured workplaces. Your modern automobile’s key fob also contains an RFID transponder. The technology, already common, is growing steadily more so, because it offers many benefits – but at what potential cost?

The advantages of RFID technology are obvious, and range from relatively safe, secure financial transactions (in an eye blink and without ever leaving the comfort of your car) to tracking of medical records and even location and movement tracking of both humans and vehicles. Already, the “Big Brother” aspects and potential abuses of RFID applications are being discussed in mainstream media circles, as is the potential for hacking and identity theft. The true cost of omnipresent RFID, however, is cultural.

According to the old aphorism about boiling a frog, if you toss a live frog into a pot of boiling water, he’ll sense the immediate danger and jump out. If, however, you place the frog in tepid water and slowly increase the temperature until he’s dead, the frog won’t know what’s happening until it’s too late. This is the cultural danger that RFID represents. If we woke up tomorrow to face armed guards and identity checkpoints just to travel our states’ major highways from city to city, we’d protest about the police state erected as we slept. We’d balk at the notion of handing over detailed travel plans to stone-faced government enforcers, and we’d rail against the invasion of privacy when told we must submit itineraries to the authorities. Yet RFID technology makes it possible to gain this same information – and thus to achieve this same level of potential cataloging and control concerning citizens’ movements – completely passively and conveniently.

Already, states using some variation of in-vehicle transponders to bill highway tolls are entirely capable of tracking time stamps as vehicles pass through tolls and other checkpoints. Those same states could easily start issuing tickets to any vehicle making the journey between two points at an average rate that exceeds the speed limit. Customers using such technology receive monthly billing statements that indicate the date and times at which they entered and left given toll checkmarks; the storage of this data represents a database of private citizens’ travel and movement that is achievable now, using established technology and infrastructure.

When applied to personal transponders, such as medical RFID tags inserted beneath the skin (already in use to track both people and livestock), the potential for abuse and government control is clear. Seductive as it is to simply wave your wrist at a retail checkout station (while the station simultaneously reads the RFIDs in the products you are buying, as RFIDs supplant bar codes for merchandise tracking), at what point will American consumers consider the potential for abuse of their civil rights that such conveniences represent? It is not a question of if or whether the government will track your movements, your personal data and even your purchases; it is a question of when.

MoreRFID stated, at the close of 2006, that “closed loop asset tracking is the fastest growing industry segment” concerning RFID technology. Such tracking enables an overseeing agency to follow the movements of any item – or person – that moves within the tracked system. The following year, IDTechEx (as reported in RFID Update) estimated “the aggregate value of the entire worldwide RFID market” to be $5.29 billion for 2008, up from $4.93 billion in 2007 – and that the “total number of tags deployed worldwide” in 2008 will be 2.16 billion.

As the cost of the technology decreases and the transponders themselves become even smaller, it is inevitable that RFID tagging and tracking will become an even greater part of the lives of American citizens. As these innovations generate greater consumer convenience and facilitate ease of data transfer, tracking, and storage, the question that looms over these developments remains one of exchange. Just what rights are Americans willing to trade, to endanger, for the offered gains in high-speed data traffic?