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Tue, 14 Jan 2003

RFID chips considered harmless

RFID (Radio-Frequency ID) chips are turning out to be the latest civil liberties nightmare, according to Declan McCullagh:

RFID tags are miniscule microchips, which already have shrunk to half the size of a grain of sand. They listen for a radio query and respond by transmitting their unique ID code. Most RFID tags have no batteries: They use the power from the initial radio signal to transmit their response.

It becomes unnervingly easy to imagine a scenario where everything you buy that's more expensive than a Snickers will sport RFID tags, which typically include a 64-bit unique identifier yielding about 18 thousand trillion possible values. KSW-Microtec, a German company, has invented washable RFID tags designed to be sewn into clothing. And according to EE Times, the European central bank is considering embedding RFID tags into banknotes by 2005.

That raises the disquieting possibility of being tracked though our personal possessions. Imagine: The Gap links your sweater's RFID tag with the credit card you used to buy it and recognizes you by name when you return. Grocery stores flash ads on wall-sized screens based on your spending patterns, just like in "Minority Report." Police gain a trendy method of constant, cradle-to-grave surveillance.

You can imagine nightmare legal scenarios that don't involve the cops. Future divorce cases could involve one party seeking a subpoena for RFID logs--to prove that a spouse was in a certain location at a certain time. Future burglars could canvass alleys with RFID detectors, looking for RFID tags on discarded packaging that indicates expensive electronic gear is nearby. In all of these scenarios, the ability to remain anonymous is eroded.

I'm a paranoiac about civil liberties and privacy, but I have to say "I don't think so". Here's why.

In some contexts, RFID chips are clearly a good thing -- they're the answer to a retailer's dream, as a combined stock control and anti- shoplifting widget, and a bank's dream, as the solution to counterfeiting and cash counting. They're also good for you and me insofar as they allow us to indelibly label expensive consumer purchases and maybe register them with the police so that in event of a theft the stolen goods can be identified and returned to their owners (us). The problem is of course the ubiquitous surveillance aspect. What we need is a way of selectively anonymizing RFID.

I envisage a boxy machine about the size of a microwave oven or a front- loading washer-dryer. The machine is quite cheap, because basically all it is is a Faraday cage and a device for generating strong electromagnetic pulses (EMP). EMP fries microelectronics -- including RFID devices. When you get home, you simply dump your shopping bags into the machine and push the button to burn out any electronics that's tagged along for the ride.

Obviously you wouldn't want to do this to your iPod or laptop or phone, but those are already identifiable by their wireless network address -- and you can switch them off or leave them at home if you don't want to be identified. The big problem is involuntary identification, by RFID bugs buried in your underwear or the chocolate bar in your back pocket, and as long as we can burn out RFID chips we can preserve our privacy to as great (or as little) an extent as we desire.

[ Link ] [ Discuss Big Brother ]



posted at: 18:24 | path: /politics | permanent link to this entry

January Toys

Two toys have just caught my eye.

Firstly, some folks swear by Psion palmtops. Psion aren't selling them any more, but still support the machines. Getting them is difficult; for example, the Series 5MX (which originally retailed for £399+VAT) costs aboout £220+VAT via most companies who still hold stock, and auctions for £100-150 on ebay.co.uk (depending on condition). It now turns out that Morgan Computers have got a job lot of factory refurbished machines in, and are selling them for £99.95 (plus VAT and shipping), as new, under warranty. According to usenet discussion they're basically repaired machines cobbled together from defective ones returned under warranty -- but with Psion's guarantee support they're a bargain.

Secondly, a year or two ago Siemens came out with a widget called the Pocket Reader. This is a large pen-shaped OCR (optical character recognition) gadget. The idea is, if you see something in a newspaper or on a business card you just swipe your Pocket Reader over it, and import the data via a cable onto your PC later. They used to retail for £109 (plus VAT), but Maplin are currently offloading their surplus stock for £30.

Finally, it turns out there's a freeware Psion utility for sucking the data off a Pocket Reader onto a Series 5MX (or similar) palmtop -- indeed, there are reader clients for most OS's, including Linux at the support page.

Anyway. The combination of a Series 5MX and a Pocket Reader gives you an interesting gadget -- a pocket-sized OCR pen and a nifty little palmtop with a reasonable keyboard (some people can touch-type on them; I need the Series 5MX's big brother, the Netbook, to do that).

[ Discuss toys ]



posted at: 16:53 | path: /toys | permanent link to this entry

specials:

Is SF About to Go Blind? -- Popular Science article by Greg Mone
Unwirer -- an experiment in weblog mediated collaborative fiction
Inside the MIT Media Lab -- what it's like to spend a a day wandering around the Media Lab
"Nothing like this will be built again" -- inside a nuclear reactor complex


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