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Slow News Day

Posted on Monday 10 October 2005

It must have been a slow news day, since the Boston Globe decided to sic Hiawatha Bray on the tired old RFID paranoia fomented by the two leaders of CASPIAN. Even the normally sane Slashdotters got into the act.

It’s clever, all right — and creepy. Because the technology needn’t be applied only to cases of beer. The trackers could be attached to every can of beer in the case, and allow marketers to track the boozing habits of the purchasers. Or if the cargo is clothing, those little trackers could have been stitched inside every last sweater. Then some high-tech busybody could keep those wearing them under surveillance.

Except that nothing inherent in RFID allows ‘tracking’ any more than bar codes allow tracking. Do Evil Marketers track the sales patterns of their products today? You bet they do. Can they do so at the level of the individual? Probably, especially if the typical beer drinker a) uses a credit or debit card to pay for his beer and/or b) uses a supermarket affinity card when buying his beer.

Now, comes the real question: what good does it do said Evil Marketer to track an individual’s beer purchase? Probably no good whatsoever. I realize that the paranoid will harken immediately to the vision of the future presented in the movie Minority Report, but I would urge you to do just a little investigation into exactly how well RFID products perform before you start worrying about the Mark of the Beast being upon us. I happen to know more than a little about the subject and I’ll be happy to help you.

For example: some critics would allow you to believe that RFID tags can be read from nearly unlimited distances. One bozo on Slashdot saw no reason to fetter his paranoia:

RFID seems more insidious if anyone (think: lawyers) can scan your car, house, or trash trying to establish patterns for whatever reason.

Well, my fine friend, go back on your meds. Passive RFID tags, which is what is getting most of the attention, can’t be reliably read more than a meter away. Don’t believe me? Go look at the specs. (Do I need to comment on the ‘lawyers’ part of his mental belch?)

If only Bray had spent more time examining the situation instead of pandering to the wackos at Spychips; he might have actually uncovered some interesting aspects to the story. Alas, it’s hysteria that sells newspapers these days.


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