Radio frequency identification (RFID) can now be used almost anywhere: they’re embedded inside products, pets and people. Scott G takes a look at a not-too-distant future where everything is monitored, metered, tallied and tracked.

It was a dark and stormy night. (I’ve been waiting years to be able to use that opening line!) The night in question: February 18, 1942. A radar operator is hunched over the controls, his face furrowed in concentration and his brow glistening with perspiration.

G-Man at the Mic“Aircraft approaching, sir,” he says, trying to keep the excitement out of his voice. The officers and men at the airbase listen intently as the corporal announces the range of the steadily approaching aircraft.

But whose aircraft? Are they our boys, returning from a mission, or their guys, ready to strafe or bomb the hell out of anything they see?

And that’s what led to the creation of radio frequency identification (RFID), a means of knowing friend from foe in wartime. In fact, the first system was called the identify friend or foe system, or IFF.

Basically, here’s how it works: a chip broadcasts on a predetermined frequency, usually only in proximity to a receiver, and, well, that’s about it. You can make parts of the system active or passive, smaller or more powerful (or both), and you can have the resulting signal trigger some other action or just record the time, date and geographic position of the chip. That’s it, really. No big deal.

Well, it may involve the largest invasion of privacy in the story of humankind. But other than that, no big deal.

Okay, flash forward past the boring historical details (you can go to for LOTS of data, details, white papers, and so forth). There have been breakthroughs and patents and new names for the chips, but the peacetime uses of RFID include:

* Scientists at Los Alamos National Lab used RFID to track nuclear materials (so now we can pinpoint the precise moment a shipment was highjacked)

* Some of those same scientists left the Lab to form a company using RFID for automated tollbooth payments (so you can keep zooming along at seven miles per hour instead of having to stop)

* Procter & Gamble and Gillette put up funding that led to the possibility of putting RFID tags on all products to “track through the supply chain.”

* They’ve been implanted under the skin of cows.

* Pets received implants.

* Large organizations insisted suppliers use the technology, including Wal-Mart, Albertsons, Target, and the U.S. Department of Defense.

* Criminals were made to have implants.

* You have to get an implant when you get a driver’s license.

* You have to get an implant when you buy a computer.

* Or computer software.

* Or a computer game.

* Or go online.

Wait, I made up those last six.

But don’t think those are not potential uses for RFID tagging. And don’t think they aren’t being considered by some very powerful governmental organizations. “It would make crowd control a lot more efficient,” you can hear someone saying.

No joking now, the following uses for RFID tags are either already taking place or being developed: shipping containers, automobiles, trucks, tires, aircraft, mail, credit cards, wallets, paper money, magazines, books, pets, medical patients, employee ID cards, iPods, CDs, DVDs, cameras, keys, eyeglasses, computers, cell phones, watches, musical instruments, furniture, electronics, shopping carts, jewelry, guns and ammo, and pharmacy prescriptions.

Of the estimated 1.3 billion radio tags to be sold this year, you may find some contained in packaged goods products on store shelves, including shampoo, clothing, shoes, frozen food, and canned goods.

Oh yes, let us not forget the possibility of combining GPS (global positioning system) with RFID.

RFID tracking can be wonderful. The process offers a great many advantages: knowing where medical equipment is in a hospital; knowing if your shipment of goods is en route or at the loading dock or in the stores; tracking skiers; helping with troop deployment; being able to track a pet that got out of your yard; starting your car without a key; knowing where your teenager sons and daughters are at any given moment; and so on.

And, since the broadcast can communicate with a database stored in computers, a vast amount of data can be accumulated, compared, massaged, or acted upon once the RFID tag is “read” by the system.

With RFID tags inside every item in your life, it would be possible to know just about everything about you. Where you walk or drive, what you do, where you shop, what you buy, how long you keep it, etc. Marketers are just drooling over this possibility.

There is also the possibility of hackers obtaining, manipulating and illegally using the data. A recent article in Consumer Reports magazine gives some details of research into RFID hacking conducted by members of Johns Hopkins University and the Weizmann Institute of Science. Their view: the data is at risk.

Remember those nifty scenes in that otherwise terrible film, “Minority Report,” where the advertising messages are broadcast directly at passersby based on the codes that are implanted inside people and/or their clothing? Not science fiction. It’s fact. We can do it right now. All it requires is the will, the funding, and the lack of laws to prevent it.

Among the most vocal opponents of RFID technology Katherine Albrecht and Liz McIntyre, authors of an influential book “Spychips: How Major Corporations and Government Plan to Track Your Every Move with RFID.” Albrecht founded CASPIAN (Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering) and they also run to present news about their cause.

Personally, I think both camps make valid points. I also think that RFID will only grow bigger and more intrusive each year, which means the Spychips crew must work harder.

Interestingly, when officials for firms using RFID technology are asked about the concerns stated by Albrecht and McIntyre, the responses appear to validate the Spychips point-of-view even while denying that the public has any cause for concern. Their statements all have the ring of “don’t worry, we won’t hurt you, so just let us use RFID anywhere we want to save you money at the store.”

As a marketer, I love the wealth of data that RFID technology can provide. We can see shopping habits broken out by every possible demographic and psychographic group. We can even see the route taken by customers in the store.

But there are questions. Should we know these things? And does anyone have the right to track the movement of your underwear?

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