Sensors Mag

Let the Chips Fall-Far from Me: Part the Second

May 4, 2006 By: Stephanie vL Henkel, Sensors

E-mail Stephanie vL Henkel

Yesterday I told you about the Great Stink arising in New Hampshire over the Real ID driver's license initiative. And I promised you more. Well, here it comes. You might not want to read this during lunch.

Bugs in My Pants
Let's now take a look at the sneaky chips built into clothing. No one I've talked to has any beef with using RFID technology for inventory management and control. Those little identifiers on goods offered for sale, with Wal-Mart's mighty muscle pushing them hard, have a very short life once I get my purchases home, discard the tags, and put the packaging into the recycle bin. But in my clothing? Pass on that! Or can I?

Why would bugs in my pants bug me? Because in theory those chips could be read at various places and my whereabouts detected. And recorded. And followed up with assorted pitches. (I hope whoever's assigned to tracking me has lots of caffeine handy.) Details of what I buy could become part of this trove of boring data and attract more spam, more unwelcome phone calls at dinner time. And what would happen if I wore a sweater with a Little Rabbit Glen chip into a Big Wolf Lair camping gear emporium? This is not technology creep—it's technology pounce.

Pushing Back
As it turns out, such wariness is not mine alone. There's been enough of a general growl to have collected a working group of wildly disparate companies (e.g., IBM, Proctor & Gamble, the American Library Association, aQuantive, Intel, Microsoft) under the aegis of the Center for Democracy & Technology. This group has spent a year on an initial best practices document, intended to address consumer privacy issues. IBM has taken a strong first step with its "clipped chip," an RFID tag that lets you scratch or tear off the antenna and thus disable its function once you get your purchase out of the store.

I can pretty much guarantee that if those lurking chips become widespread, cottage industries will spring up offering "chip-free" clothing that will let you go about your business without broadcasting the particulars. And those who buy free-range eggs and organic vegetables will be first in line to buy their pants from those places.

A Yet Scarier Version
Not long ago there was a TV news story about a man who had an RFID chip implanted in the web of tissue between his thumb and index finger. It resembled a large grain of rice, all too clearly visible, and about as attractive as a tongue stud. Why did this man get his chip? Why, to bypass such inconveniences as garage door opener controls, door locks, and computer passwords. So it must have a little antenna. (I wonder if the chip will be easy to swap out in case he moves, or changes his locks or his password. Maybe a teensy zipper?)

Ideas are being floated too of choosing to have a passive microchip implanted with important medical data that could streamline your treatment in an ER should you arrive in a state of unconsciousness or confusion. Of course, the ER personnel would have to know where to run the scanner and interrogate your chip. And unless you built your own chip you wouldn't really know what it's saying about you.

Putting active chips into Alzheimer patients and others prone to unsupervised roaming makes a horrible kind of sense. I suspect, though, that the plan won't catch on until we as a society are able to somehow equate those unfortunate souls with inventory items to be tracked and replaced on the store shelves as necessary.

Bowser and Bootsie
But we do make decisions for small children and our pets, decisions we'd think really hard about when it comes to our Peculiar Uncle. Chips for pet ID! Great idea, and one that so far has seen action from all of 5% of U.S. dog and cat owners. Implantation doesn't hurt the animal, the procedure is not prohibitively expensive, and you can be readily located if your pet strays and is taken into custody. The snag is that there are two kinds of this passive chip, encrypted and non-encrypted, and each requires its own type of scanner. It's a frequency problem. (Hold still again, Boots!)

Maybe it comes down to this: So far we can opt out of chip implants. But how much longer will we be able to assume we're completely alone at times, if that's our choice, without getting newborn-bare? And maybe I'd better take off those new earrings too.

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