Chip In Your Shoulder

Will RFID chips follow our every move?

If you think the “magnetic tags” found on consumer items like CDs and clothes are frustrating, dehumanizing and an invasion of your privacy, then you’ll be appalled at the coming Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) age. RFIDs are basically magnetic tags that broadcast information. Multinational corporations and government agencies will use them to accumulate information on people’s habits and to track us, in order to control us most efficiently with marketing, propaganda, and law-enforcement. Soon, your library books, your credit cards, your hospital wristband, and every packaged product you buy will be physically traceable by anybody who has the proper sensor technology. RFIDs are devices that send out tracking signals. Already they can be found in Gillette Razor packages, Benneton sweaters, credit cards, and they may soon be in many library books.

Specifically, they announce not only their presence, but a unique code corresponding to the actual item in hand. Example: magnetic tags carried through a sensor allow the sensor to infer that an active tag is present in the sensing area, which means an item is being stolen or was improperly checked out. Magnetic tags can be “killed” when an item is checked out so they don’t work anymore.

However an RFID tag in the same situation announces, “Hey! I’m here. I’m a book. I’m Das Kapital. I’m copy number 1455.” And when it leaves the library or store it still works. RFIDs aren’t only placed on products. RFIDs are already being used on credit cards, “I’m VISA #xxxx …,” car keys, “I’m key #3367 for car #3367,” in military hospital wristbands “I’m PFC 5555,” and on railroad cars, and the list goes on. You get the idea.

RFIDs are too small to contain batteries, so they don’t have enough power to broadcast their codes constantly. They derive their power from a magnetic pulse (called an “interrogation signal”) from a device that is tuned to listen for RFID broadcasts. The information tracked with RFIDs, when combined with numerous databases, can be much more threatening than simple tracking.

Databases are everywhere containing various personal information, ranging from marketing and credit records to government information. All databases can be cross-referenced by anybody with access. When any new information-gathering technology is introduced, its proprietors promise the public that the information will be carefully protected to prevent abuses. However, those seeking to invade privacy work hard to get around limitations.

While the government is not supposed to have access to certain types of privately collected personal database information, they have been getting around legal restrictions by partnering with private companies which are not subject to legal restrictions. The government also uses fear to compromise personal liberty for the sake of “security”, for example with passage of the Patriot Act.

The system of RFID tagging and databasing of personal information may soon be the primary threat to personal anonymity and security. This technology is already in use, and when it becomes more systematically integrated into our technological society, scenarios like this may become common:

“You go to Wal-Mart (they are the main proponents of RFID in stores right now) you pick up a Gillette razor to shave those pesky butt-crack hairs, and when the RFID-reader equipped shelf ‘hears’ you remove the item from the shelf, a ‘customer appreciation’ camera in the display takes your picture (this is already happening in the UK). The picture is sent to the security guard at the front of the store wirelessly, who waits to see if you pay for the high-theft item. You buy other RFID equipped items, which you may or may not know are broadcasting their location and type. Your route through the store is tracked by a network of sensors so Wal-mart can compile market statistics on the buying and walking habits of shaving people. You go to “check out” and find that most people walk right out the door, because the RFID antenna/computer at the door simultaneously totaled their purchase wirelessly and charged their credit card account when it sensed the RFID credit card in their purse (these are in use in Chicago, Singapore, Tokyo). Security is there to make sure all people that passed through had their credit card, and they are waiting to see if you will verify as you walk through because they know you are statistically likely to jack the razor. There is a single register for paranoid or marginalized cash customers, so you wave your razor in front of the register and feed your wrinkly dollar bills into the cash counter under the gaze of the security, who is just doing her job. It was a dehumanizing hassle, but you got your razor. Later, your credit card wielding sister gets a subpoena because the can of coke she legally walked out with (#18994) and charged to her account (#45879) was found near a torched SUV and linked to the crime by the FBI. What a bummer, cause she didn’t even do it. Though her highly paid lawyer gets her off after he pulls records that her credit card had automatically been buying her drinks at Club Trendy at the time the SUV was burning. Sometime later, you are eating at the local organic store when a cop walks by on the sidewalk with a handheld RFID reader and pegs the copy of Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid fresh from the library nestled harmlessly in your backpack and starts asking questions. He says, ‘son, in my experience kids with books like these commit crimes. Geez, if you saw the statistics I see every day, you wouldn’t be reading it. Calm down, I’m not arresting you, I’m sure you haven’t done anything wrong, I’m just waiting for you and your friends here to be cross-referenced through some databases to see if you are a security threat. It’s just a matter of routine.’”

This story is not incredible, it may just be a matter of time until it is commonplace. Many different industries are working to put RFIDs everywhere. They are starting to appear in the strangest places. Every government building, university, and research facility is using them for “key-cards.” Every pallet of goods that went to Gulf War II was tagged. The corporations are drooling over them because they can make supply chains ultra-efficient by tracking each item along the assembly line all the way to the shelf and curb shoplifting for good. The San Francisco library is thinking about putting them in their entire inventory.

As with all new technologies they are being marketed for their increased efficiency and convenience. Who would want to wait in line at the grocery store, when you could just walk out the door and everything would be paid for automatically? Consumers, especially in Germany, have objected to RFID, afraid of the Orwellian world that could result, and usually they are pacified (literally the word of choice in confidential marketing strategy plans stolen from the MIT Auto-ID center website — they are the primary patent-holders of this technology, until the entire lab was purchased and relocated by EPC Global) by promising that another device would send a “kill” signal to RFIDs when they leave stores. But if they are to be used in libraries, either the kill signal wouldn’t be used or a special “resume” signal would need to be programmed in.

Libraries seem to be the target market in the US. Who would ensure the “kill” signal is actually being sent by RFID readers? The consumer will never know, because all RFID reading/writing/killing/resuming is done silently and from a distance. Will the cops know the resume signal, if the kill signal is implemented? The CIA? The NSA? I don’t know. But I don’t trust it.

Thumbs down for RFID. It is a major threat to individual autonomy and anonymity, if you are doing legal or illegal things. Keep an eye out for them (see picture), and keep yourself informed on who has access
to what databases Tell your librarian you are opposed to RFID technology. Check out for more information, and US Patent #6,768,419 for a description of the proposed library RFID system.

Book Review

The Technological Society by Jacques Ellul

The Technological Society gives the reader insight into the emergent properties of our economic system. Without resorting to value-based language, or improbable conspiracy theories, or the existence of extraordinarily inhuman world leaders he explains the nature of our system based solely on individual people functioning out of motivation for their personal benefit within the constraints imposed on them by the economic environment they find themselves in. Jacques Ellul shows how the resulting system tends toward greater interdependence, the collective will imposing itself over the individual will, and the inevitable merger of all control agents (corporations, administrators, politicians, technicians) into a single technical totality. The entire book is an exposition of technique, the generalized character of the means to an end. It is the know-how, the application of knowledge for a purpose. The primary economic purpose of technique is to adapt the capricious and irrational nature of humans to the rational, linear, predictable nature of the machine, and to orchestrate that society to function like a machine. The application of knowledge (technique) is a normal human behavior, but it becomes the primary motive force of change in our world when it is coupled with machines, which through their access to non-sustainable energy sources have a functionally unlimited ability to multiply our labors, resulting in efficiency.

The human tendency towards efficiency has always existed; it represents our striving to get the largest benefit from the least amount of work. It can be called innate laziness. This is done through the application of planning, reason, and organization. “Work smarter, not harder.” The sudden applicability of science in the Industrial Revolution resulted in an exponential increase in the number of machines being built. Their ability to tap fossil fuels reinforced and amplified their production. Due to non-centralized resource and labor distribution, complex machines like the steam engine were most efficiently produced by many specialized industries. Thus the coordination of those many industries was essential to the success of the whole economy. In that situation technical standardization must be enforced by administrative organizations, i.e. the government (or unions, or corporations), whose scope encompasses the entire industrial complex, lest the entire production system collapse. To access the greatest general productivity the freedom of the production system must be reduced to its absolute most efficient form, “the one best way, that makes the most ‘sense,’” which is necessarily tin conflict with individual industries and individual workers. Ellul stresses that whether the regulating entity is capitalist, communist, socialist, fascist, or a corporate state, it has the same totalitarian effect on the individual caught in it.

The effect on us is especially dehumanizing because the production-consumption cycle functions more efficiently if the demand and/or production can be fixed, predicted, and/or manipulated. All three techniques then are used to their fullest capacity by the regulating bodies, and within each specific industry. Statistics are gathered, models are computed, and human techniques are implemented. These are directed at the individual’s life, leisure, body, and mind. Propaganda and regulatory laws are the primary human techniques, and like all techniques integrate successively into every aspect of the individual’s economic life. Propaganda can motivate people to buy commodities or products for which demand is lagging or doesn’t exist yet, thereby regulating the economy, or it can enrapture people to a state of war, and war in the technological society occurs for primarily economic purposes. Ellul speaks of total integration where the individual is the target of a barrage of coercive techniques (the most effective techniques are those unnoticed as such by the people under their influence) from all sides. Also, any individual technician can justify the invention and imposition of new human techniques because each technique does pragmatically function for the immediate benefit of individuals. Techniques make us temporarily more efficient of comfortable, but since the individual is subject to “beneficial” techniques from a multiplicity of technicians, and other forms of indirect economic persuasion, the system as a whole is totalitarian and compulsory to the individual. It is totalitarian as well, and can only become more so, for the only method of change is through technical means. No utopia or novel political-economic “solution” can be implemented unless it has a practical means of out-performing the current system. Agents of change are constrained not by the viability of their ideal but by their technical means of coming into existence (a revolutionary idea is limited not by its functionality, but by its ability to bring people into action). Thus the power-of-change will be successively consolidated into those agents that have the broadest access to the means of change. This is why the economic system tends towards totalitarianism. Ellul supports these statements with exhausting historical and contemporary facts and a thorough argument.

The Technological Society leaves the reader with an intense disappointment because Ellul makes it very clear that only technical solutions can be solutions to technical problems. He suggests that no ideology has any value until it applies itself. This is the core of the ethical problem activists meet everyday when faced with the problem of, “do the means justify the end, if they are in violation of the values of the end?” Ellul would suggest a dismal view that if your values are in violation of the most effective means of implementing them, then your values are doomed to impotence.

However, in a related essay, “Anarchy from a Christian Standpoint” Ellul gives the reader some hope for a way out of the technical complex. He suggests anarchy as a solution. He says anarchy is the only ideal that fully implies political-economic non-participation, a practical method of change, because it implies non-competition. He says he has no faith in a functional and stable anarchist society, but he agrees that if people were constantly striving towards one, the world would be a much better place.

I would like to note that, as many a reader has already guessed, the efficiency Ellul speaks of is not actual thermodynamic efficiency, but only a measure of human work in, versus human benefit out. The measurements do not take into account the actual production and maintenance costs of the technological society, namely the consumption of fossil fuels. Our machines are actually extraordinarily inefficient compared to biological systems, they just currently have access to a convenient but temporary non-biological energy source. If non-sustainable energy sources were eliminated or didn’t exist, then techniques would not create an inhuman and totalitarian system, it would reflect the control methods of ecological systems. That world would be tuned to perfectly adapt the human for the human’s sake, rather than adapting the human only for sake of the machine’s top performance.