Monday, October 19, 2009

ARCHIVE: Book Review: Spychips: How major corporations and government plan to track your every move with RFID

Review by Kellia Ramares
[This review was originally published on Online Journal on January 17, 2006]

Spychips: How major corporations
and government plan to track your
every move with RFID

By Katherine Albrecht & Liz McIntyre
Foreward by Bruce Sterling,
ISBN: 1595550208
Hardcover, 270 pp
Nelson Current, 2005

Marketers want to tag data to identify you and profile your possessions so they can target you with marketing and advertising material wherever you go. Government agents crave the power of hidden spychips to monitor citizens' political activities and whereabouts. And, of course, criminals can't wait to identify easy marks and high-ticket items by scanning the contents of shopping bags and suitcases at a distance. [authors' emphases]. --Katherine Albrecht & Liz McIntyre, Spychips, p 29.

RFID stands for Radio Frequency Identification. Organizations that promote RFID, which include companies whose names and brands you recognize, such as Wal-Mart, Gillette, Procter & Gamble, Intel, UPS and Benneton, as well as government agencies such as the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security, want to implant an RFID tag on every item on earth.

Unlike current bar codes in which all similar items, e.g. 12 oz. cans of Coca-Cola, have the same number, RFID tags would give each individual item a unique identification number. Such tagging, combined with databases of purchasing histories tied to credit cards, ATM cards and supermarket loyalty cards, would create a system of universal product registration. "Spychips" explains what marketers, government agents and criminals are doing and could do in the near future with such a system.

Katherine Albrecht is the founder and director of C.A.S.P.I.A.N. (Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering) and Liz McIntyre is C.A.S.P.I.A.N.'s communications director. The C.A.S.P.I.A.N. web site, which asks, "Is Big Brother in your grocery cart? " and the companion Spychips web site provide a lot of information about RFID and related strategies, as well as efforts by C.A.S.P.I.A.N. and other groups worldwide to derail the effort to make everything we carry, wear or drive traceable to us. The book "Spychips" is the natural continuation of their years-long efforts to inform the public about this global threat to privacy and liberty.

In "Spychips," Albrecht and McIntyre prove that the RFID industry's claims that their tags would not be used to track people are total lies. They do so by excerpting patent applications made by the some of the biggest proponents of RFID: transnational corporations such as IBM (patent application # 20020165758 -- IDENTIFICATION AND TRACKING OF PERSONS USING RFID-TAGGED ITEMS), Procter & Gamble (patent application #20020161651 -- SYSTEMS AND METHODS FOR TRACKING CONSUMERS IN A STORE ENVIRONMENT) and Philips Electronics (patent application # 6,611,206 -- AUTOMATIC SYSTEM FOR MONITORING INDEPENDENT PERSONS REQUIRING OCCASIONAL ASSISTANCE). Patents have been granted for some devices mentioned in the book.

A regimen of ubiquitous RFID does not stop at tagging things. The plans include tagging people. Already, the FDA has approved a subdermal RFID implant and, as Spychips graphically details, Persephone, Inc, a California-based company calls for surgical implantation of tracking devices in patent application # 2004174258 -- METHOD AND APPARATUS FOR LOCATING AND TRACKING PERSONS.

A major thesis of this book is that, contrary to the claims that RFID tags will make for a better world, the ubiquitous presence of spychips will only make the evils of the world worse. And in these times when we see people from Saddam Hussein to George W. Bush likened to Hitler, Albrecht's and McIntyre's imagining of what it would have been like for the Nazis to have had access to RFID is especially chilling:

In a world filled with RFID readers, the Nazis could have been far more efficient in depriving Jews of access to basic necessities and the stuff of daily life. RFID numbers encoded in their chips could mark Jews as social and technological pariahs, causing any doorway, elevator, or appliance equipped with RFID-based authentication to shut down when a Jew attempted to use it. In a cashless society where an ID swipe is required for nearly every activity, pay phones could be programmed to withhold dial tones, subway gates could remain firmly closed, and store equipment could refuse to ring up "Aryan only" foods like eggs and milk for the "wrong" kind of person. --Katherine Albrecht & Liz McIntyre, Spychips, p. 211

"Spychips" is a must read for anyone interested in preserving democracy, civil liberties, the concept of "innocent until proven guilty," and personal privacy. It is also a must read for people who want to be free from constant and intrusive marketing, and safer from criminals. The book will also be of interest to people concerned about abuse of technology, and people interested in Biblical interpretation. ("And he causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads. And that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name." Rev. 13:16-17, quoted in Spychips, Chapter 14 Are You Next? p. 167).

That quote from the Book of Revelation reminds me of a bank commercial -- perhaps you've seen it -- where the customers stand passively in a long line after having had a barcode stapled to their foreheads. It's passivity that will make the scary world of ubiquitous RFID a reality, say Albrecht and McIntyre. Although RFID is already with us in forms such as "FasTrack" and "EZ-Pass" electronic toll collectors, the authors hope that the tagging of everything, and thus of everyone, can be stopped dead in its tracks with massive consumer action reflecting the very high level of consumer opposition to RFID. The chapter called "Pull the Plug: How you can help win the RFID war," recounts some anti-RFID victories, and lists a series of small, moderate and bold steps consumers can take to oppose RFID, as well as listing a number of "the worst of the spychippers," i.e., companies that deserve to be boycotted for their "past, present, or future plans to use -- or abuse -- RFID on consumer products."

The authors also promote their "RFID Right to Know Act," a piece of model legislation that would require the labeling of items containing RFID. Considering the federal government's promotion of RFID, well documented in "Spychips," and industry opposition to labeling legislation in other contexts, such as foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and dairy products containing growth hormones, the chances that an "RFID Right to Know Act" will be passed are probably somewhere between slim chance and fat chance. Nevertheless, the legislation is available at the Spychips web site where Albrecht and McIntyre keep news about consumer actions against spychipping companies and other information about RFID.
Interested consumers should read "Spychips" and go to the web site for more information. Then go out and rent a copy of the movie "Minority Report."

Copyleft, 2009 Kellia Ramares. Non-commercial distribution with credit is highly encouraged.