MARCH 5, 2001
Tag! You're it!
© 2001

I recently read a chilling story in MIT's Technology Review that was beyond spooky.

Charlie Schmidt writes a long and frightening piece entitled "Beyond the Bar Code."

"Within a few years, unobtrusive tags on retail products will send radio signals to their manufacturers," he notes, "collecting a wealth of information about consumer habits -- and also raising privacy concerns." You damnbetcha!

The incremental ubiquitous assault on privacy has been an issue I have talked about and written about for years:

From Project Echelon and its bastard child, "Carnivore," to sub-dermal biochip implants, the unbridled pursuit for invading our privacy under the guise of protection or convenience has been relentless. And every single one of the growing programs designed to protect or convenience you has negative consequences and invades the once-upon-a-time sanctity of your "castle" or person. The glass is also half-empty when it is half full.

The latest cancer in development is these "unobtrusive tags" that will be feeding digital data to an insatiable master. They are called "radio frequency identification tags." It is a silicon chip "that boots up and transmits a signal when exposed to the energy field of a nearby reader."

So what's the deal? Schmidt reports, "The ultimate goal is to put a radio tag on virtually every manufactured item, each tracked by a network of millions of readers in factories, trucks, warehouses and homes, transforming huge supply chains into intelligent, self-managing entities." Hello? Intelligent, self-managing entities?

These things have apparently been around as long as Echelon although primarily very vertically targeted to specialized industries. They have been used for everything from tracking cattle and trains to the recent introduction on highways for those "Fast Track" no-stop tollbooths.

Unless or until someone can significantly reduce the cost, these devices will remain the erotic dream of marketing mavens and government spooks. However, if or when they can reduce the cost of these things from a dollar a piece to a penny a piece, "Katie bar the door." Engineers are hard at work striving for that cost-efficient coefficient. When that happens, bar codes will become the eight-track tape of merchandize tracking; everything and anything you buy (from razor blades to soda bottles) will be transmitting data that will empower marketing managers (and nosey government initialed agencies) and eviscerate the concept of privacy critically.

Schmidt reports, "Steve Halliday, vice president of technology at AIM, a trade association for manufacturers of tagging technology, says, 'If I talk to companies and ask them if they want to replace the bar code with these tags, the answer can't be anything but yes. It's like giving them the opportunity to rule the world.'"

This technology may have inventory, marketing and manufacturing executives jazzed but it should scare the hell out of anyone who still embraces liberty, freedom and privacy.

Congress has been waging an on-again, off-again war to get national ID cards linked to some kind of biometric tool. Biometric tools are unique individual identifiers like fingerprints, retinal scans and DNA profiles. Americans and assorted privacy groups have resisted establishing such personal invasions of privacy. There is even an active and vocal community that associates these efforts and the Digital Angel-type biochip sub-dermal implant with the biblical "Mark of the Beast."

Several years ago during one of my radio talk programs I made a passing reference to the Sylvester Stallone-Wesley Snipes movie, "Demolition Man." In it, everyone in the future is required to have a sub-dermal biochip implant. The device held an individual's entire personal history: medical, financial, health history, criminal record, etc. I noted that although it was science fiction, the technology exists now.

Despite the apathy and myopia of the American people, a sub-dermal biochip implant may well be too invasive a solution even for limousine liberals. However, if everything a person owned from cars and guns to underwear and razor blades was constantly linked to something -- or several interconnected somethings -- there would be no need for inserting a chip under your skin.

I admit that when I read about this nanotechnology stuff my eyes kind of glaze over and my comprehension and appreciation of the technology is overshadowed by my deep and abiding loathing for any and all assaults on my privacy. No, I don't have anything to hide, and no, I am not engaged in criminal activity, but last time I checked (despite the efforts of the Louis Freehs of the world) I am still protected from unreasonable search and seizure.

Schmidt acknowledges that one of "the greatest challenges facing the creators of such an infrastructure, will be finding ways to allow consumers to opt in or out of the system as it becomes more pervasive. It's not clear how that's going to happen. But it's important if companies want to prevent a public backlash against these systems." Eventually they will probably propagandize about the myriad advantages, ignore the negative consequences, and go to work on Congress to legislate the nosey nano as mandated.

At least in the short term the technology as it is currently developed has limitations that minimize privacy concerns. But you can and should expect those limitations are mere challenges to be overcome.

I am not antitechnology. However, the product of technology is tools. Tools are in and of themselves benign. You shouldn't blame the hammer, the screwdriver, the car or the gun for bad stuff that results from misuse of the tool. However, information, although essentially benign, can and will be misused. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and now it has a "Fast Track" toll with "radio frequency identification tags."

Thomas Jefferson in a letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush wrote, "It behooves every man who values liberty of conscience for himself, to resist invasions of it in the case of others: or their case may, by change of circumstances, become his own."