An RFID chip embedded in the page of a passport. (IndyMedia.org)
Thursday, July 19
, the Shidler Center for Law, Commerce and Technology and the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington held a forum at the University of Washington law school on radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology
and its implications. RFID allows remote scanning, that is scanning for information from a distance.
I've written about RFID before
. It's the technology that is being used to collect tolls on the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge
. It will be used in the "enhanced" Washington state driver's licenses
available in early 2008. This week, Washington announced
that the enhanced license's RFID technology will be provided by Digimarc
, the Beaverton, Ore., company that is also providing face-recognition software for Oregon's new biometirc driver's licenses
RFID is also used by the Seattle Public Library
to keep track of books, and a number of local transit agencies are looking
to use them in a network of "smart cards."
And it is also controversially used in the new U.S. passports and specified for the new RealID national identity card
mandated (but not fully funded
) by the federal government.
The chips are ubiquitous
, embedded in everything from running shoes to bottles of shampoo. And in what shouldn't be a surprising trend, some members of a generation inured to the permanency of tattoos are allowing nightclubs to implant RFID chips
in their bodies.
RFID chips can track products and consumer behavior, and they are used in key and bank cards. Eventually they will enable the seamless tracking of every U.S. citizen and facilitate the aggregation of information about identity, location, consumer habits, financial transactions, medical data, and just about everything else into mineable databases.
The Seattle Post Intelligencer
recently carried an excellent Associated Press overview
of the "chipping of America," and the The Seattle Times covered the forum
The privacy and security issues around the technology are significant. Civil libertarians are concerned about invasions of privacy and misuse of data by government and business. To address this, the ACLU of Washington has set up a Technology and Liberty Project
to focus on electronic information, privacy, and the future of high-tech's impact on free speech. Washington is just the second state to have such a group.
Beyond growing government power, there is worry that hackers could steal identities or tap into private electronically transmitted information, such as access codes. A group from the University of Washington late last year tested the security of a type of new Nike sneakers
, footwear that records user data on a chip in the shoe. That data (running speed, distance, etc.) can then be transmitted to your iPod
. The UW researchers intercepted the data and found that by connecting to Google Earth, they could track the wearer. Now stylish, sporty ankle bracelets aren't just for convicted felons anymore.
RFID technology is evolving
, tech companies are starting to address security concerns
, and a cottage industry has sprouted offering RFID countermeasures. You can, for example, buy scan-proof wallets. (Or you can make your own aluminum foil-lined duct-tape wallet with help from the Internet
In Washington, lawmakers tried to pass a bill last session that would have regulated use of RFID chips. State Rep. Jeff Morris, D-Mount Vernon, Rep. Zack Hudgins, D-Tukwila, and Rep. Deb Eddy, D-Kirkland, spoke at the forum and detailed their experiences trying to write rules for an emerging technology, to educate their colleagues, and to get a bill passed to safeguard consumers. Morris, who is chair of the House Technology, Energy, and Communications Committee, described their efforts as an attempt to get a sense of "where the guard rails should be" in protecting the public. He had hoped at the very least that legislation would require the use of RFID chips in products be disclosed to consumers.
But, Morris said, backers of the RFID bill ran into "vehement" opposition from lobbyists. They included representatives from the cell-phone industry, the American Electronics Association, EPCglobal, and Hewlett-Packard.
Morris likened watching business interests descend on the bill to watching a pride of lions take down a zebra on the savannah. They were able to scare many freshman legislators from supporting the bill by raising doubts about whether or not this was the time to be regulating new technology.
The bill failed. There is some talk about waiting until federal or industry standards for RFID are in place before acting again. But many are skeptical about industry's ability to watchdog itself. Morris says it can take two to four years to get a bill like this passed. California passed a bill last year limiting the use of RFID by government agencies, but Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed it
. The legislation will be revived.
Rep. Hudgins, a former
Amazon and Microsoft employee, said that it's difficult to pass laws like this until something captures the public's attention. He noted that here a "guy ran into someone" while text messaging, so the Legislature made it illegal to text-message while driving.
Maybe the equivalent will have to happen with RFID before the public takes the risks seriously. In California, it was outrage in the so-called "Sutter case
," where a school and a technology company cut a deal to tag children with trackable IDs, that helped get attention and support for RFID regulation.
Morris said the only anti-RFID bill that passed here was one that restricted its use in tagging cows.
So you can sleep well knowing that Washington state livestock are safeguarded from unwarranted intrusions on their grazing. Until a bill for people passes, the citizens of Washington can just say "moo."