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You know that many of the credit cards in your wallet contain radio-frequency identification chips. You may drive a car with an RFID transponder on your windshield, used for certain automated toll systems. Even your identification may contain such technology. But what will you do when RFID chips have been embedded even in … your underwear?
Two years ago, RFID technology was the topic of the very first Technocracy column here at WorldNetDaily. Every word of what I wrote then still applies, but the technology of RFID tracking has continued to move forward inexorably in the intervening years:
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.
In that column, I warned you about such applications as vehicle transponders for toll-taking and medical RFID tags used to track people and animals. Public awareness of RFID is rising, even as the technology becomes more widespread. While you’ll obviously have every warning (you hope) when your government wants to plant a chip in your wrist, you may not realize that your big-box retail store wants to implant the same chip in your pants and shirts.
Just days ago, USA Today reported that Wal-Mart is introducing a new, more widespread RFID inventory-tag system. “Wal-Mart Stores … is putting electronic identification tags on men’s clothing,” wrote Anne D’Innocenzio for the Associated Press. “But the move is raising eyebrows among privacy experts.” She goes on to explain, “The tags [which give Wal-Mart employees direct and real-time control over inventory levels] work by reflecting a weak radio signal to identify the product.” But as AP reported, Katherine Albrecht of Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion And Numbering worries that such inventory tags in individual clothing items could allow stores to track individual customer’s movements. The actual privacy risk of the inventory system, of course, hinges on whether the RFID tags are easily removable or somehow embedded in the clothing.
New RFID risks are as close as your back pocket. When my new New York state driver’s license arrived, this “enhanced” identification came with a built-in liability. It’s RFID-enabled, meaning its built-in chip contains an identification number that can be scanned wirelessly. The license arrived in a small foil-lined envelope with the words “RADIO FREQUENCY PROTECTIVE SLEEVE” emblazoned across it. Beneath this are the words:
The RIFD tag does not include any personal information, only a unique reference number. Keep the card in sleeve when not in use.
This begs the question: If the RFID chip in your driver’s license does not contain any personal information, why must it be protected by the sleeve at all?
Last year, Popular Mechanics ran an article on the unique security risks of RFID-enabled credit cards. “[A] team of researchers at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst,” wrote Joel Johnson, “was recently able to construct scanners capable of skimming both the cardholder name and card number from a variety of first-generation RFID credit cards. Then they found a way to transmit that data back to a card reader, tricking it into accepting a ‘purchase.'” What’s worse, recounted Johnson, was that “many of the supposedly encrypted cards sent card numbers, expiration dates and cardholder names in plain text – which could be read through the envelopes the cards were mailed in.”
Concerned consumers have been taking their personal data security into their own hands for a while now. On YouTube, you’ll even find some people yanking the RFID chips out of their cards. While this may seem drastic, it’s understandable considering the attitude of the companies issuing the RFID cards themselves. Adam Savage of Mythbusters claims the banks behind the credit-card companies intimidated his network into killing a planned episode on the insecurity of RFID bank cards.
So what can you do?
For some time now, I have been personally testing the RFID-blocking products offered by Identity Stronghold. What I quickly discovered about my “enhanced” license was that the sleeve was awkward to use and slowed the process of producing and showing ID considerably. Identity Stronghold’s RFID-blocking wallet solves this problem, giving me one secure place to carry my chip-equipped cards and identification. I’ve carried mine since the arrival of my new license forced me to clean out my billfold. The company offers a complete line of RFID-blocking products, including badge holders, passport sleeves and shielded bags for wireless phones.
Obviously, just tucking your RFID-equipped cards into such a wallet or sleeve doesn’t solve all your problems. You’ve still got to be aware of the risks. You’ve got to conduct yourself responsibly as an informed, reasonably – dare I say it – paranoid consumer, at least in regard to your personal data.
In 2008, I predicted in Technocracy that 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. This dilemma hasn’t changed. You’re not paranoid, as the old saying goes, if everybody out there really is out to get you. Your enemies, in this case, are data thieves … and they truly are out to get your ones and zeroes.