RFID and People Tracking: Background For My Next Book

As part of a background study for my next book, I had a look at Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) devices. Many articles were five or six years old, reflecting a burst of interest at that time. One was new, and was more than a little worrying. It looked at the prevalence of RFID devices implanted into people apparently without their knowledge.

RFID Background

As the name implies, RFID devices use radio frequencies to transmit data from a portable device to a host computer. An intermediary piece of equipment such as a scanner may be used to gather the radio frequency message and transmit it to the host computer either manually or automatically.

The portable device, often called a tag can be active powered by an internal battery or, more commonly in tags associated with people in any way, be passive.

For those who like history, RFID dates back to the early days of radar and World War II. Britain put radio transponders in its war planes so that radar could easily distinguish the good guys from the bad guys. Chips first appeared in the 1960’s and became widespread in the 1980’s. But the real burst in manufacturing occurred during the last ten to fifteen years.

RFID chips are now everywhere. The RFID market is expected to reach $26 billion by 2016. They are in credit cards and passports of course, as well as most modern identification cards. They are also in much of the clothing you buy from certain manufacturers or distributers.

RFID Use to Track People

No one is going to be upset by the use of RFID to make shopping or travel by bus or train easier. But unfortunately the devices can also be used to track who you are and where you go. Whether you think this matters depends on your degree of paranoia and your belief or not in the conspiracy theory.

John Brugel and Mary Franz from the Wyoming Institute of Technology recently wrote an article titled: Analysis of radio frequency identifications (RFID) chip prevalence in 3 distinct US populations. They looked at close to 1,000 people from each of three areas in the US: midwest, northeast and southwest. People were scanned either in the nude or with minimal clothing and the possibility of an RFID device being on the clothing was excluded.

They found RFID devices in 997 of the 2,955 people in the study. Given the nature of the study they concluded that up to one third of people in the US had an RFID implant. The devices were found in:

  • Tooth fillings and crowns (around 57%)
  • Implanted screws (around 15%)
  • Artificial hip (around 11%)
  • The hand (around 8%)
  • Artificial knee (around 7%)
  • Implanted birth control devices (around 2%)

The authors make no attempt to question why the chips were in place. Their report is a scientific study and not an exercise in societal commentary. They also make no comment on whether individuals were aware or not that a chip had been implanted.

Mobile phones and other trackers

Nowadays the simplest way of tracking people is to use their mobile phone. Anyone with access to suitable tracking gear can locate you pretty quickly from the repeated signals your phone sends out when it is scanning to see if there is incoming call or SMS message.

This could of course be put to good use. A few years ago it was suggested that traffic lights in busy cities could be programmed to allow better traffic flow by counting the number of mobile phones moving down different roads. Furthermore, given that people are creatures of habit, analysis of mobile phone traffic flow could then be used to predict next weeks traffic as well.

The RFID on your credit card could be used to determine the time you tended to go shopping, where you went and what you bought. There is nothing, at least in concept, in stopping that information being used to send you personalised advertising given that the credit card company is quite likely to have your email address.

Depending on the browser you use, a considerable amount of information is already available about what websites you visit. It was interesting to observe that when there was a fuss recently about Australia possible telling internet companies to store data on individuals web browsing, no one mentioned that Google has been storing that type of information for years.

Conclusion

They, by that I mean commercial organisations and government agencies, have been tracking you for some time now. The only certainty is that such tracking will become more commonplace.

Does it impinge on your personal freedom? Of course.

Can you do anything about it? Probably not.

Does that mean the George Orwell had successfully predicted the future some 75 years ago?

I’ll leave you to answer that last question.

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