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What is the problem?

Every so often people try to placate fears: "But, my goodness, 20 years ago everybody was all aflutter about bar-codes and prophesied the see-through citizen (as the German phrase goes), and nothing came of it. What can be so different about RFID?" - That, we are going to explain on this page.

Zum deutschen Text gehts hier lang.

What's new about RFID chips is...
  • ... that with them, each and every man-made object will receive a unique number and will be uniquely identifiable through this number. Up to now, every cup of strawberry-flavoured yogurt on the store-shelf has the same bar-code number as its fellow strawberry-yogurt from the same dairy. With RFID every single cup will be identified individually. The relating data-base tells you what kind of yogurt this cup belongs to. But more important: when you buy one, you as customer will become uniquely identifiable as well, e.g. when you pay for it with your bank- or credit-card and/or when you have it booked to your "loyalty" card.
  • ... that the spychips can be read out through radio waves, i.e. contactless and not requiring a free line of sight, without you ever taking notice. While you have to hold your customer's card to a reading device with your own hand, thereby deciding when you want it read out or not, with RFID technology you can never know who knows what about you at any given moment.
  • ... that the chips are so tiny and cheap that soon they will be integrated in every shirt collar, every sole of your shoes. They cannot be removed without destroying the product (the shoe) itself. This means: Every reading device you pass will read your chip anew (perhaps on the bus, at the petrol station, in the next supermarket...). All so-called deactivators known to us so far do not prevent this. Every now and then you hear that the chips can be easily destroyed in a microwave oven. We have tried this and advise you against it. The chip will burst into flames and burn a hole into, e.g., the yogurt cup. Quite a nasty mess!

This can have serious consequences:

  • Our shopping behaviour is spied out without us noticing it. E.g.: Who remains standing before what shelf for how long? -> What kind of tailor-made adverts can we send this customer?
  • Reading antennas can be built into doorsteps, petrol pumps or traffic lights. So then soon a lot of people - possibly also intelligence agencies or criminals - know what kind of chewing gum we prefer and which credit cards we hold.
  • Some time in the future there will be no more products without RFID.
  • And anyway: The more radio waves are about, the higher the pollution with what in Germany is called "electrosmog".
  • Which is not the end of it, when it comes to possible environmental pollution through ubiquitous introduction of RFID chips. As soon as a chip has done its duty and is about to land in the waste bin together with its yogurt cup, it becomes hazardous waste consisting of silicon substrate, copper, lead, plastic and perhaps glass. Right now the waste disposal works are not capable of handling this. They possibly soon will be, but this will not solve the possible further environmental impact of waste that will simply land on the city dump and seep through from there into air and groundwater. This is something that even bothers the US environmental authority, the "Office of the Environmental Executive (OFEE)". (Source, in German: ZDNET, December 2005)
  • Out of the frying pan into the fire: RFID doesn't solve any problems, but poses new ones. It is said, e.g., that shoplifting will be a thing of the past because everyone passing the cashpoint with a tagged item will be registered. Well, when it is your turn and somebody squeezes past you with a stolen item in his pocket, this item will indeed be registered. But on your receipt. The shop will indeed have no problem with shoplifting any longer since the item will be payed for. By you...

What this can lead to:

Unbilieveable though it may sound, the following scenarios are either reality even now or else closely related to marketing strategy-papers and patent applications of the RFID lobbyists. There is an impressive list of original papers in Katherine Albrecht's book "Spychips".

The following text was written by us for the the German 2003 BigBrotherAwards. Some of it is going on right now - some of it will become reality in the nearer future.

April 2003

The "Future Store" has opened in Rheinberg near Duisburg. Trial customer Marion Z. is impressed: she can hold her new customer card next to her shopping trolley to receive a personal welcome on a display built into its handle, and she is then shown her own standard shopping list (which she had to supply to be stored earlier). With each shopping trip, the computer will modify the list according to her personal preferences. A "navigation system" on the display leads her to each next item on her list, always choosing an optimal route. Browsing time is eliminated. And: because the RFIDs make theft almost impossible, prices are set to fall, so they say. There is no conveyor belt to place your shopping on, no checkout at all, payment is by card. "Veeery handy!"

May 2003

The first retailers' representatives are given tours of the Future Store, and they are enthusiastic! No more goods selling out, shelf refilling can be coordinated centrally. No more need for price tags on items, as prices are transferred directly from the central computer to the trolley displays. And customers can be addressed individually with commercial spots and adverts, via the displays. As supermarket holder Dietmar K. is beaming into a TV camera: "It's a retail revolution, we are entering a golden age!"

September 2003

Spiegel Online, the web edition of a German weekly and a major provider of German news on the internet, are fooled by Metro's PR activities and publish an article full of nothing but praise of the advantages for the consumer. For example, the new system would enable customers to find out exactly in which country articles were made, via the displays. Shopping would become much more transparent. At Metro's marketing department, the champagne bottles are cracking. "Do they really think we'd be stupid enough to spell out the fact that these coffee beans were picked by 5 year old children??" wonders intern Nina S. After the celebration she continues entering detours into the navigation system of the shopping trolleys server, making it lead the customers past selected products.

October 2003

Marion Z. finds an article in the paper about the Big Brother Award. She is shocked by the surveillance opportunities created by RFIDs. A letter to the editor is giving reassurance: RFIDs are not dangerous at all, they can easily be destroyed in the microwave. Alarmed, she bangs her last Future Store shopping into her microwave. The butter melts, the zipper on the jeans is sparking fireworks. A scream is heard: "Oh sh**, that's the last time I've done that!" Have the chips actually been destroyed? Marion doesn't know.

April 2004

Lars H., second term student of computer science, is developing a small jamming transmitter on behalf of the FoeBuD association in Bielefeld. It can prevent RFIDs from being read. Marion Z. is buying one. Lars H. drops out of university and launches a start-up company for his transmitters. He donates parts of the profits to FoeBuD.

June 2004

Gerd J., supermarket assistant, is excited about the new technology. That nuisance of sitting at the checkout is a thing of the past, it's easier to refill the shelves, warehouses are used more effectively. Coming home from work, he finds a letter from the executive with a caution. It says he's been to the toilet nine times a day, spending about 72 minutes there on average. This is 27 minutes above the target, an amount that will be deducted from his working time in the future. Shocked, he searchers his supermarket coat and finds an RFID in the collar.

September 2004

RFID prices have dropped to 1 Cent per chip, and there is now an common, accepted technical standard. This makes their overall introduction a close reality. (Editor's note: Prices have not yet sunk so low, but are going down continually as the technology develops.)

October 2004

Feta maker Karsten P. has now received 10 faxes from the major retail chains. If he is not going to integrate RFIDs into all his packaging in the next three months, his supply contracts will be cancelled. Karsten P. has resisted this new technology so far, but thinking of his 75 employees, he is now giving in.

November 2004

Marion Z. is sent a caution from the Duisburg authorities with a fine. The wrapping paper of a Mars bar she has bought was found in the town park, floating in the duck pond. After some pondering, Marion Z. remembers that she gave the sweet to a young carol singer. Grinding her teeth, she pays the 10 Euro fine.

January 2005

Start-up entrepreneur Lars H. is sick and staying in bed. He asks his neighbour Nina S. to go shopping for him. As she returns with the bill, he is puzzled to find that Nina S. is paying twice the usual amount for some products. The two confirm that sanitary products are more expensive for her than for him. Comparing with friends, they verify that all women are paying more for sanitaries, that families are paying more for videos than singles and so on. A call to the consumers' association establishes that competition laws have been changed months ago on the back of some bill extending shopping hours. This "price discrimination", as the technical term goes, can no longer be challenged.

April 2005

Supermarket assistant Gerd J., now out of work because he hasn't got his toilet times under control, is at the filling station. As the RFID in the chewing gum package in his jacket has not been destroyed at the supermarket, he is identified as a chewing gum user, and while he is waiting for his car to be filled he is shown a video advertising other chewing gum brands.

July 2005

Start-up boss Lars H. is buying a new intelligent fridge. Reading product RFIDs, it knows what it is storing, which yoghurt is nearing its sell-by date, and what will have to be restocked with the next shopping. The fridge can order missing items automatically through the internet or add them to the shopping list on the supermarket trolley display. And via a display in its door it can suggest recipes. At night, Lars is dreaming that the fridge is autonomously ordering a Pizza Tonno for itself and eating it together with the toaster. He wakes up in a sweat. Hung over, he finds a warning by his health insurance in the post. His food is too rich in colours and preservatives, it says. If he isn't going to change his diet, his insurance premium will be raised next year.

August 2005

As Marion Z. is approaching her supermarket, the door is not opening. The store manager's first question is: "Could it be that you're carrying one of those jamming transmitters in your pocket? Oh no, you won't get in then." This experience is repeated at almost every supermarket in the area. From now on she will leave her "jammer" at home. In the evening, she glances across a newspaper article from November 2003 in her paper recycling bin: "Privacy activists are chasing ghosts - Metro Group calls dire predictions 'absolutely unrealistic'."

We repeat: The above scenarios are closely following RFID lobbyists' concrete plans, some of which are already being tested in pilot projects. There are confidential marketing strategy papers that have been found by CASPIAN, an American consumer protection organisation, and published on the web. These papers explicitly state dispersing consumers' fears about their privacy as one of the main objectives.

Such a goal should make you especially suspicious.

Postion statement on the use of RFID in and on consumer goods.

Also the economic benefit of RFID is under dispute. Even the renowned German economic news magazine "Handelsblatt" doubts that RFID carries any benefit for the economy (in German).

2006-12-29 14:35