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Peter Cochrane's Uncommon Sense: Chips in everything - Including me
A future of electronic tags and intelligence in everything - from our grocery packaging to our clothes to our bodies - raises big questions about privacy and security.
Almost every item of hardware, clothing and most foodstuffs now has a visible barcode which has become the primary means of identification at points of sale. Our purchases are universally swiped. The digital ID goes into a cash register to be recorded, totalled and printed on a receipt. The transition to this digital form has been rapid and non-threatening.
The next phase already has some manufacturers embedding RFID (Radio Frequency IDentification) tags in their goods. For example, some trainers have them embedded in their soles. What is an RFID tag? In this case, it is a small radio transceiver that is inert until energised by a radio beam of a given frequency. So, as a customer gets to a checkout, the beam energises both receiver and transmitter components, and product information is sent to the register.
There are many reasons manufacturers and retailers welcome this technology. It allows much greater storage of information about a product's life. Details about raw materials, transport, processing, assembly, delivery and sale can be captured.
This establishes an invaluable production control and audit trail. Substantial benefits can be expected in terms of quality control and production cost reduction and in the case of foodstuffs and consumables rapid identification and remedial action in the event of any contamination or defects.
But while bar codes are passive many will see RFID tags as a great threat, a challenge to our civil liberties. It wouldn't take much of a technological leap to be able to detect your trainers (and presumably you) entering a store, restaurant or cinema, for example.
Fast forward 10 years and assume bar codes have been replaced by embedded RFID tags. Also assume we have accepted them into our everyday lives in much the same way we did the barcode. There are then many new and powerful scenarios we can conjure up, some of which we will like and some we will not.
If, for example, I purchase a new TV, take it home and plug it into a power outlet, when I switch it on it may well look around my home and say hello to my washing machine, tumble drier, microwave, radio, hi-fi, PC. All of this appliance information is shared and held within that new TV.
If during the night someone burgles my home and steals my new TV, takes it to their home and plugs it in, it will immediately look around the building and say: Oh no, wrong washing machine, tumble drier, microwave, radio, hi-fi, PC - I think I'd better email Peter Cochrane and the police. I've been stolen.
Most of us, I think, would applaud such a facility.
A further development we may have to learn to appreciate goes like this. We arrive at the airport to have our face, eye, hand, thumb and voice automatically recognised and verified by computer. Our possessions are also identified through their RFID tags. The old cardboard passport or plastic ID card is no longer required and we don't have to wait in line at check-in or security.
During the waiting period in the flight line we may make a few purchases and as we board the aircraft we are scanned again. The system again identifies us, recognises us and all our clothing and possessions, including laptop, mobile phone and PDA. The system also recognises we have purchased a bottle of wine and few other goods that are completely safe.
As the aircraft gets ready to take off the security system is checking through the records of all the passengers and discovers there are four people in the aircraft - two in first class, one in the middle section and one right at the back - who have at no time declared they know each other. None of their documentation indicates they are with the same company or organisation but through an examination of all of those RFID tags and the records they contain, it becomes clear all four people have mobile phones purchased on the same day, from the same store, using the same credit card.
Alarm bells start to ring in the security minds and questions are posed. What is happening?
The above is not a precise replay of events in the US last September but it's not so far removed. Pre-9/11 there was a lot of information that associated the players in the plot to commit those devastating atrocities. They might have been intercepted had authorities had the power of electronic tagging and accurate analyses developed and to hand.
RFID tags will hand us such a capability on a plate. The big question in everyone's mind is going to be where does security start and finish and the violation of personal privacy and civil liberties become a problem.
I think we will have to give up some of our civil liberties and personal freedoms to ensure our collective freedom and safety. It is probably going to be a small price to pay if we avoid another 9/11 or anything remotely like it.
I think it is about choice - and I have already volunteered my body for any surgically implanted technology that will improve my security and safety. To be identified instantly, to be tracked constantly and to have all my medical and other records available would need more than an RFID tag. But whatever. Just sign me up. Or more correctly - plug me in!
This column was dictated onto an Olympus recorder, typed on an Apple iBook by my secretary, emailed to me using a cable modem, edited on my laptop on BA39 flying Brussels to London, despatched to silicon.com via my GSM phone from Garfunkels at Terminal 1 Heathrow.