At stake in this war is personal privacy. The Patriot Act was not the first blow against it, just the most brazen. Signed into law a mere six weeks after the terror attacks, and despite its assault on the Fourth Amendment, its swift passage provoked few complaints. Shaken to the core, American sentiment was near-unanimous: a lack of vigilance had allowed the enemy to strike at home. We would safeguard the future against any repetition, no matter the cost.
Yet, the cost of this, or any, security is the erosion of liberty. And that liberty is the citizenry’s sole defense against its own government. Because so few Americans are able to rationalize the State acting against the good of its people, the calculated overthrow of our privacy will be absolute.
"The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he did not exist.”
In 1948, George Orwell visualized a bleak world future, where personal privacy crumbled before state security. Big Brother pried open our lives, scrutinized our every behavior. The slightest disobedience was met by death or macabre re-education.
Despite the draconian message of 1984, the novel’s infrastructure is now prevalent in the U.S. The Thought Police are coming. The weapon fueling this putsch appears harmless, even mundane. And, like the plot of any good sci-fi, it’s already among us.
I write of the soon-to-be ubiquitous RFID tag.
RFID (Radio Frequency IDentification) tags are used in corporate security cards, at highway toll booths. They are the annoying clothing tags that set off store alarms. That these devices will be used to deprive us of our liberty seems absurd. But, as Verbal knew, that’s just the point.
THE FOREST FOR THE TREES
Like a wily devil, RFID will greet you as a friend. It will smother you with gifts practical, quasi-magical, sometimes near-miraculous in their promise. Who wouldn’t want a refrigerator that could talk, tell you the milk’s expired, or that you are running low on eggs, that could even call the grocery store and place an order for you?
What dorm student wouldn’t love to toss the laundry into the washer, knowing the machine is smart enough to tell whites from colors, cold from warm, wool from blend?
Who wouldn’t want the blind to walk safely through town, any town, without the aid of a guide?
RFID is cool. You’re going to want it. The consumer-driven market will demand it. Soon, you won’t be able to imagine life without it. And that’s how, in a nutshell, we lose our privacy.
Because RFID is much more than a tool of industry. It’s a mechanism for surveillance; it’s spyware at its core. These tiny tags store information and, particularly in semi-passive and active models, transmit this data to a central reader for collection and collation, allowing Big Brother to keep tabs on you.
What information will be shared? Proponents suggest you have nothing to fear. No personal data will ever be transmitted. Buy a jacket from a retail store and the RFID chip sends product details to an in-house inventory database. Purchase a magazine and the chip will monitor which articles are read, but without revealing who’s doing the reading.
Yet it’s just not that simple. RFID tags can be illicitly tracked, revealing your whereabouts, your spending habits, your reading habits, and just about anything else that has RFID technology attached to it. Because RFID tags remain functional even after you have purchased a product, you become a walking transmitter of private information.
It gets worse.
Each tag operates on a unique frequency. If one tag can be linked to you, specifically, it allows for all other tags in operation by you, or near you, to be associated with you, thus creating an enormous, highly revelatory picture of who you are. A very personal, very private, picture.
Soon, anyone with the necessary know-how can access your intimate details. Think about this: every political article you read will be filed away. Every movie you rent, every book your borrow, every store you enter, every mile you drive, every person you talk to will be filed away, stored for a day when it may be used against you. In this digital age, where almost every transaction (purchases, emails, phone calls) create an electronic footprint, the infrastructure of RFID means the death to all our secrets.
Blinded by the light of these marvelous innovations, this technology’s dark side will pass unnoticed into our homes.
THE SPY IN THE MIRROR
In early 2007, the Federal Drug Administration approved the use of RFID chips in humans.
The first victims are prison inmates. By implanting tiny microchips under the skin, the State may monitor these offenders’ every move. In jail, they track the location of gang members. On the street, they locate paroled sex offenders and observe their proximity to schools and parks.
Newer versions of the chip promise to allow the controller to send electric shocks through the implant, to discourage undesirable behavior.
Next come corporate employees. CityWatcher.com, an Ohio-based security firm, was the first to require its employees to be implanted.
In Europe, and now in Florida, private citizens may volunteer for implanting. The perks of hardwiring include the ability to conduct financial transactions with a wave of the wrist. No need for cash or credit card. Thanks to RFID, you are your wallet. No more waiting in line. Guys gain access to club VIP rooms thanks to the implanted tag. It’s an invitation to instantly join the social elite.
In effect, RFID will create a police state. But unlike Orwell’s Oceania, we will be the spies. Further, unlike any time before, we won’t be spying on our neighbors, but on ourselves.
AN UNSTOPPABLE FORCE
Several U.S. states have passed bills outlawing involuntary human tagging. Several more states have legislation in the works. Yet the technology drives the market and soon the price of opting out of the system will be too hard for the ordinary citizen to bear.
VeriChip Corp is the U.S. RFID market leader, having sold thousands of chips worldwide, more than a quarter of them designed for human implantation. China’s RFID market reached more than $500 million in 2007, growing over 50% since 2006, thanks in large part to its national ID card program.
The U.S. State Department now offers RFID-enabled passports for travel across the Americas. Drivers’ licenses are rolling out, too. Every player, from the U.S. military to Wal-Mart, is using RFID and penalizing suppliers that don’t.
Despite recent studies which indicate embedded chips induce malignant tumors in lab animals, there are no plans to slow the transition of chips to humans.
Likewise, despite vigorous warnings about the dangers of RFID chips from sources as diverse as terror experts, state senators, and the Center for Democracy and Technology, the federal government boldly moves forward with new RFID-based programs.
That terrorists may used RFID-based passports to identify U.S. tourists clearly is not a concern of our political leaders.
We should not be surprised. Do we really think the Patriot Act was conceived in a mere six weeks? Of course not. The root desire to increase state security at the expense of personal privacy was seeded long before the horrific events of 9-11. The current War on Terror has proved a catalyst for the coming agenda. What exactly that agenda is remains unclear. All that we can say for sure is that, like Winston Smith, we have reason to fear.
The enemy of the state might well be you.