We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Tracking RFID – it’s everywhere

CNet.com has a round up of articles about RFID:

Privacy questions arise as RFID hits stores
Companies brace for privacy debate, as potentially intrusive applications arrive faster than expected.

European supermarket chain extends RFID push
Tesco will use the technology in more stores, focusing this time on tracking cases and pallets, rather than individual items.

Tracking technology gets a reality check
At Baltimore pow-wow, hype over new RFID technology is tempered by concerns about cost, privacy and quality.

With RFID, corporate might makes right
Retail powerhouses such as Wal-Mart gather in Baltimore to push development of controversial tagging technology.

IBM readies large RFID push
Big Blue plans to invest $250 million in a new business unit to support products and services related to sensor networks.

Privacy questions arise as RFID hits stores

Wal-Mart Stores, Procter & Gamble and other big companies pushing the electronic tracking tags said they’d use them only in warehouses to more easily locate and account for stock arriving in cases and palettes. By the time the merchandise hit store shelves, they’d have removed the tags. The placement of tags on items consumers actually take home was projected to be at least 10 years away, last year’s argument went. Some said it may never happen if costs remained prohibitive.

Though relatively rare today, RFID tags are marching toward stores and shopping baskets across the country–raising questions about the implications for consumers. Also experimenting with RFID are Albertsons, Best Buy, Target, as well as European chains Metro and Tesco. Elizabeth Board, executive director of the public policy steering committee for EPCglobal said during a panel discussion:

There is a concern that EPC (tags) can be tracked everywhere and that retailers want to track you at all times of the day. It’s not realistic, but it has caused a lot of confusion.

She expects that fears about privacy invasion will continue to be a public relations problem for the technology. RFID supporters must do more to dispel the myths and misconceptions surrounding it.

Retailers and consumer-goods companies are hesitant to agree to removing tags from items at the time of purchase for several reasons. One reason is that RFID tags could help with returns by exposing people trying to get a refund for a product they never really bought, or one they purchased from another store.

One of the valid concerns about RFID is what companies plan to do with all the detailed data they’ll be able to collect about consumers, said Daniel Engles, director of research at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Auto-ID Lab, an RFID research group.

Static over RFID

CNet new.com reports that a key patent holder’s demand for royalties has triggered concerns that promising RFID technology could become embroiled in an intellectual property battle.

The royalty flap stems from a new protocol, the Electronic Product Code Generation 2 standard, designed to improve the compatibility of radio-frequency identification (RFID) equipment from different suppliers and iron out a number of other technical kinks.

The patent claim comes on the eve of a new protocol’s debut. EPC Global, the organization that helped create the protocol, expects to finalize it at an Oct. 5 meeting. Now, some RFID backers fear other patent holders could come forward and demand royalties, slowing RFID’s progress.

Major companies, including Albertsons, Procter & Gamble, Wal-Mart Stores and German retailer Metro, have already begun to set up RFID systems and are eagerly awaiting the release of the new protocol to advance their projects. They expect RFID, a wireless tracking technology that may someday replace bar codes, to help them reduce theft, shave labor costs and handle inventory more efficiently.

RFID tags: The people say no

CNet news reports that when it comes to radio frequency identification tags for humans, the people have spoken. They hate it.

CNET News.com recently ran a report on companies with technologies that involve implanting RFID chips under people’s skin or inside a bracelet. Advocates say the tags could help paramedics deliver medical help to people in the field, reduce prison violence or give police a way to track victims of kidnapping, a major problem in Latin America.

The issue has united people with fairly strong religious beliefs and libertarian privacy advocates.

The fear that the technology will enable governments to keep tabs on everyone was the concern raised most often. Hypothetically, law enforcement agencies or even private security companies will be able to track where you’ve been, with whom you associate and what you own with this technology. Imagine a semiretired senior citizen in a rented maroon blazer knowing everything about your day.

A large number of letters also asserted that human RFID tags are a demonic tool.

There is much interesting stuff, read the whole thing.

German start-up launches human body transmitters

One German start-up has created an alternative to RFID that is likely to get under consumers’ skin.

Ident Technologies has dreamt up Skinplex – which could be used in all the same ways as RFID and Bluetooth – but uses a different transmitter: human skin.

Like RFID, Skinplex works by reading a unique identifier remotely using an electromagnetic signal, normally between a microchip and a reader. Unlike RFID, however, Skinplex uses the skin to transmit the signal and an identifier carried on a person. The signal is transmitted when the carrier touches the receiver.

Yeah, right. So much better than RFID then.

RFID tags become hacker target

CNET news reports that privacy advocates may not be the only people taking issue with the current crop of radio-frequency identification tags – merchants will likely have problems with a lack of security as well, a German technology consultant said Wednesday.

Low-cost RFID tags – many which are smaller than a nickel and cost less too -are already being added to packaging by retailers to keep track of inventory but could be abused by hackers and tech-savvy shoplifters, said Lukas Grunwald, a senior consultant with DN-Systems Enterprise Solutions GmbH. While the technology mostly threatens consumer privacy, the new technology could allow thieves to fool merchants by changing the identity of goods, he said.

This is a huge risk for companies. It opens a whole new area for shoplifting as well as chaos attacks.

While expensive RFID reader hardware and hard-to-use software have hindered security research in the area, Grunwald said that’s no longer a hurdle. The security expert announced during the session a new software tool that he helped create that can be used to read and reprogram radio tags.

When such tools become widely available, hackers and those with less pure motives could use a handheld device and the software to mark expensive goods as cheaper items and walk out through self checkout. Underage hackers could attempt to bypass age restrictions on alcoholic drinks and adult movies, and pranksters could create confusion by randomly swapping tags, requiring that a store do manual inventory.

Grunwald’s software program, RFDump, makes rewriting RFIDs easy. While there are significant malicious uses of the program, consumers could also use it to protect themselves.

Everyone should have the right, once they leave the store, to erase the RFID tags. Deleting information on the tags would allow people to stop RFID checkpoints in stores and other places from tracking which products they are carrying, or which have been inserted under their skin.

RFID users say no privacy law needed

ComputerWorld reports that a U.S. law enforcing privacy rules for radio frequency identification (RFID) isn’t needed because companies experimenting with the technology are committed to protecting privacy, two such corporations told a U.S. House subcommittee yesterday.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. continues to move forward with plans for case- and pallet-level tagging of products with RFID chips. But most item-level tagging, where individual products are identified with RFID chips, is about 10 years away, Linda Dillman, executive vice president and CIO of Wal-Mart, told the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection.

Privacy advocates told the committee that legislation is needed to protect consumers from potential uses of RFID. Three privacy advocates testifying yesterday offered few current examples of privacy concerns caused by RFID, but as the range of RFID scanning grows beyond the current 10 to 20 feet, RFID could allow corporations and governments to track people’s movements and purchases.

Building walls

The War on Terror, like any war, provides the opportunity for certain technologies to be developed at an accelerated pace. The problem is that we seem to depend on the rather glib assertion that without freedom there is no prosperity. This is fine so long as government is concerned with prosperity. But how long do people have to wait in societies where an élite puts the power to rule ahead of prosperity? As George Orwell put it in Hommage to Catalonia: “We don’t grasp it’s [totalitarianism's] full implications, because in our mystical way we feel that a régime founded on slavery must collapse. But it is worth comparing the duration of the slave empires of antiquity with that of any modern state. Civilisations founded on slavery have lasted for such periods as four thousand years.”

With this thought in mind, from Tech Central Station:

Chemical detectors may provide, by the way, the greatest advance in counter-insurgent capabilities. Biochips will make it possible for self-directed UAVS to seek out explosives, including those used in small arms, and chemical and biological agents. They will also enable the identification and tracking of thousands or even millions of individuals in a monitored area based on their “smell.”
→ Continue reading: Building walls

Schoolchildren to be RFID-chipped

Silicon.com reports on Japanese authorities decision that tracking is best way to protect kids.

The rights and wrongs of RFID-chipping human beings have been debated since the tracking tags reached the technological mainstream. Now, school authorities in the Japanese city of Osaka have decided the benefits outweigh the disadvantages and will now be chipping children in one primary school.

The tags will be read by readers installed in school gates and other key locations to track the kids’ movements.

Apparently, Denmark’s Legoland introduced a similar scheme last month to stop young children going astray.

Attention, Shoppers: You Can Now Speed Straight Through Checkout Lines!

Josh McHugh in Wired has a feature on RFID chips in supermarkets. He describes his visit to the Future Store built by European retailer Metro to be the premier live testing ground for RFID tags.


Thanks to the coordinated efforts of the world’s biggest retailers and manufacturers, not to mention the persistence of former lipstick marketer Kevin Ashton, these little tags are about to infiltrate the world of commerce. Depending who you ask, RFID tags constitute:

  1. the best thing to happen to manufacturing since the cog.
  2. the biggest threat to personal privacy since the crowbar.
  3. the near-exact fulfillment of the Book of Revelation’s description of the mark of the beast.

There’s a compelling argument for each of these perspectives – including number three.

He explains why manufacturers and retailers alike are so eager to implement RFID technology. It is mostly about the supply chain margins.


Retailers are even keener to get their hands on the sort of information RFID tags promise to reveal. The way it works now, all the little kinks along the supply chain accumulate in the lap of retailers, which take delivery of products without knowing whether the shipments are correct until they’re unpacked. The average rate for shipping screwups is 1 in 20. That’s a big part of why margins in the retailing business are so thin – average net profit for supermarkets is 1 percent – and precisely the reason that Wal-Mart, Target, and Metro have given their top suppliers six to nine months to start slapping RFID tags onto crates and delivery pallets. Manufacturers want this technology, but retailers need it.

RFID will be good for the customer too. Shopping will be much easier and the information gathered about their shopping behaviour will result in a closer match between demand and supply.

There is more, especially on the argument opposing RFID that we have written about here already. It is worth reading the whole thing.

VoIP catches Big Brother out

Yesterday Michael Jennings introduced me to Skype, a sort of instant messaging program that is very good at voice communications. This is part of an ongoing trend which is seeing computer networks challenge the traditional telephone networks for business.

Because rather then pay a large sum of money to make an international phone call, I’m now able to speak with Michael in London from my Australian home, for free, and with a better sound quality then I was able to do before.

So as you can imagine, it is a time of fast change in the telephone business. This has implications wider then the share prices of telephone companies.

To encourage take up of VoIP, legislation has been introduced in the US Senate, by Senator John Sununu. The VoIP Regulatory Freedom Act of 2004 is designed to exempt this technology from most state and federal regulations.

Needless to say there’s been plenty of opposition to this. Much of the opposition comes from self-interested telephone companies, but the US Dept of Justice is not happy either.

The VoIP Regulatory Freedom Act of 2004, sponsored by Senator John Sununu, would exempt VoIP service from a wire-tapping regulation called the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, or CALEA, commonly used to listen in on traditional telephone calls, said Laura Parsky, deputy assistant attorney general for the DOJ’s criminal division.

“I am here to underscore how very important it is that this type of telephone service not become a haven for criminals, terrorists and spies,” Parsky told the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Wednesday. “If any particular technology is singled out for special exemption from these requirements, that technology will quickly attract criminals and create a hole in law enforcement’s ability to protect the public and national security.”

You can read Laura Parsky’s complete testimony here

What this statement is all about is that the Dept of Justice has got quite accustomed to using the wiretap to track down undesirables and is most unhappy that this legislation might prevent them from doing so in the future.

This is part of a wider trend that I suspect we will see more of, with people taking the opportunity to try out new ways of communicating with each other, and regulatory agencies scrambling to keep up. In the United States, there are US Senators who seem, like Senator Sununu, who consider privacy issues and freedom from regulation important. I fear that when the EU catches up, as it surely will, that those issues will be the least of the concerns of the people who draft the regulations.

RFID and privacy: Debate heating up in Washington

Privacy advocates and some lawmakers are pushing a debate over potential privacy abuses from the growing use of radio frequency identification chips as huge retailers such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. move toward large-scale use of the technology.

They see the potential for retailers and other companies to be able to track consumers long after a consumer purchases an item – for example, a tennis shoe manufacturer scanning a sporting event for the number of people wearing its product.

Those advantages are why large retailers such as Wal-Mart and Target Corp., as well as government agencies such as the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), are embracing RFID technology as a way to improve their supply-chain efficiency. Wal-Mart, leading the way on RFID adoption, plans to phase in use of RFID, with major suppliers of its north Texas stores required to use RFID chips on pallets and cases by January 2005. The DOD plans to require suppliers to use RFID tags by early 2005.

But early experiments with RFID haven’t gone smoothly, at least in the public relations arena. In early 2003, Wal-Mart and The Procter & Gamble Co. tested the use of RFID chips on individual packages of lipstick in an Oklahoma store, and the supposedly secret test raised the hackles of privacy advocates everywhere. The RFID chips allowed Wal-Mart to track the customers as they took the lipstick off shelves.

Wal-Mart’s test of RFID chips on individual products also prompted Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, to suggest that federal legislation may be necessary at some point. He criticized what he called Wal-Mart’s “clandestine” testing of RFID.

In November, a group of privacy advocates, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), issued a position statement on the use RFID in consumer products. The statement called for retailers to give notice to consumers when RFID chips are being used, what the purpose is and to have security measures in place verified by third parties.

The statement (pdf) calls on merchants to voluntarily comply with RFID privacy measures, and asks retailers to comply with a moratorium on item-level use of RFID chips until a technology assessment involving consumers and other stakeholders can be completed. The statement asked retailers not to force consumers to buy products with RFID tags and advocated that consumers should be able to remove or disable the tags, but the statement did not advocate federal legislation.

Ari Schwartz, associate director of the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), one of the groups signing on to the November privacy statement.

There has to be a way to kill these chips. The question is really what it’s used for and how it’s done, rather than the technology itself. Most of the benefit out there comes on the back end, in the stock room, and most of the privacy concerns come when it leaves the stock room.

Most retail uses of RFID so far are limited to stock rooms, and with retailers and vendors open to privacy discussion, Schwartz doesn’t yet see the need for federal legislation.