Thursday, August 19, 2010

Book review: Spychips by Katherine Albrecht

Yes, I will eventually cover the contents of this book in my review. Skip down to the "This book" section, if you want to get to that part right away.

1.) THE SOFT SELL: It will make life easier!
Behold, the face of convenience!

What if your refrigerator could tell you not to drink the milk this morning, it's expired?

What if your medicine cabinet could send you an email reminding you to get a refill of your prescription medicine before it runs out?

What if your kitchen cabinets could take stock their contents and load five recipe suggestions for dinner onto your iPhone?

In the mid-1990's, as the rest of us peered into the inner world of cyberspace and marveled at our embryonic internet, engineers opined on ways to bring that inner world of information out into the physical plane. In 2003, the idea had taken enough form for tech writer Steve Meloan to pen an article imagining a global "internet of things", where items in the physical world could communicate with one another and with computers, to generate useful information. The foundation for this internet of objects would be the microscopic radio frequency-emitting microchip known as "RFID" (Radio Frequency I.D.). The sole function of RFID is to generate a unique 16-digit number, which can be "scanned" by receivers tuned to the chip's broadcast frequency.
Useful tangent: In several instances, RFID manufacturers have dismissed citizens' privacy concerns by "dispelling" the public "myth" that RFID chips contain their personal information. This is a disingenuous argument; it is true that the chips themselves do not contain that information, however their entire reason for existing is to link a product to a customer's personal information which IS stored in corporate and government databases. Please be sure to call out slick PR men on this tactic, whenever you see it!

Scanners can then feed the unique code into a computer, which can connect online with a product database containing all sorts of information about the product. When/where it was produced, where it was sold, what credit card it was purchased with, what refrigerator or medicine cabinet it was placed in (when these are equipped with scanners), and eventually (when scanners are installed on garbage collection trucks) when/where it was discarded. With existing hardware, the futuristic useful functions I described above become possible. This "internet of things" will aid manufacturers with useful consumption and marketing data. Can all this be done practically? Yes, undoubtedly. RFIDs can be produced for less than 50 cents each (Karen, please send me the cents symbol- I know you have it somewhere on one of your threads!); and once they cost less than 5 cents each, the savings (in inventory efficiencies, market data collection, theft prevention, etc) would justify their inclusion in any product costing less than $1.
The chips are not big, so can be easily placed into products or packaging:


RFID scanners can also be mass-produced at low cost, making it practical to build them into a whole host of household products (appliances, kitchen and bathroom shelves, garbage cans, etc).

If product, personal (including credit) and municipal databanks are allowed to interconnect, even more applications become possible. Scanning garbage would be a great way to maximize proper recycling of goods. Not only could garbage trucks identify improperly disposed articles, but the product's database could link the product to the person (credit card) who purchased it, and automatically fine them- for the good of the community. Everybody wins!

...So, it looks like we're on the cusp of living in a golden Jetsons-like future, where all the consumer goods around us collaborate intelligently to make our lives richer and more convenient, right?

2.) THE HARD SELL: This is for your own good.
Behold, the face of safety and well-being!

We have an evolving system where products utilizing existing RFID technologies can interact with each other. What's missing from this picture? ...YOU! The only reason we even care about any of these products is because we use them and interact with them. Proceeding down this line of thought, it didn't take engineers at PositiveID Inc to refine the VeriChip -an RFID encased in a biologically inert grain-of-rice-sized shell, which can be implanted by syringe into the soft tissues under the skin.

Whoa! Hold on there... is that safe? Why would I want to put a chip in my body?

Calm down, my friend. Get a grip. First of all, it is safe. Secondly, nobody is asking you to put a chip into your body... but just consider the advantages of putting it into your pets. It would be like a collar which never comes off. Not only would it be useful for identification if your dog wanders off, the chip could refer your veterinarian to a database with Fido's complete medical and vaccination records. Very convenient. In fact, it's such a good idea, a lot of communities have decided to make it mandatory. (Because what's the use of a good idea if we don't force everybody to go along with it?)

While you're sitting there enjoying the safety and convenience of Fido's new RFID chip, here's something else for you to mull over: Don't you owe it to your elderly parents to at least make them as safe as your pets? Everybody has heard stories of elderly with Alzheimer's or senile dementia wandering from home and getting into trouble. The application of RFID chips to identify these people can only be a good thing, can't it? After all, while the police have your grandfather in custody, you'd certainly want them to know he has diabetes, a heart condition, and an allergy to walnuts... right? Of course you would. In fact, chipping is such a good idea, it should probably be expanded to include babies, immigrants, prisoners, and the homeless as well.
"First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out -- Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out -- Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out -- Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me -- and there was no one left to speak for me."
-Martin Niemöller

Oh, stop being so dramatic!


3.)BEYOND SELLING IT: We have to do this.
Behold, your civic responsibility, and your patriotic duty!
(If you have nothing to hide, why would you object to this?)

Let's not loose sight of what RFID is. It's an I.D. -Identification. Think for a moment about all the necessary functions proper identification serves in this country. There is all sorts of calamity going on right now because of failures in our identification and authentication systems. The subject of illegal aliens living and working in America has repeatedly touched on the question How should an employer verify the citizenship or right to work of employees? Wouldn't a mandatory implantable RFID chip in every citizen solve that problem?

How about sex offenders? We're all aware of the need to identify sex offenders in our communities. Wouldn't it be great if implantable RFID chips were mandatory in convicted sex offenders? If they came within a certain distance of a school or youth club, scanners on the perimeter could alert police of parole violation. Surely sex offenders have waived their rights to privacy vis a vis RFID chips, haven't they?
Well, yes.. but I must confess some discomfort at what seems like a very high number of false convictions. I'm also a bit concerned about how many communities throughout the U.S. require persons caught urinating in public (including behind bushes at the side of a highway) to register as sex offenders.

Oh, so you're defending sex offenders now?

Um, I didn't say that. If you think I did, go re-read it.

Let's move on. Surely we can agree that we want to keep our country safe from terrorists. In the 2008 Republican primary debates, candidate Rudi Giuliani repeatedly advocated creation of a "tamper proof" national ID card to address the dual problems of illegal immigration and terrorism. I remember wondering to myself how any ID could be tamper-proof, but I can see how a chip implanted deep into subcutaneous tissue would be pretty tamper-proof. Wait... okay, maybe not, but that's how they're being marketed. As long as that perception exists, RFID is likely to be increasingly entwined with the debate about creating a national ID card. Remember: IT'S FOR THE CHILDREN!

4.) THE IRON FIST: Cross us, and we'll turn your chip off.
Behold, the only game in town!
national ID

RFID makers would like to entice you to allow their chips in all sorts of consumer products. They would be very pleased if they could influence lawmakers and the voting public to pass legislation requiring the chipping of many (most, all) individuals. But what they would really LOVE is if chips were to become part of the national economic infrastructure. That's where the real money is: if PositiveID could sell a scanner at every point of sale, at every bank, every ATM, etc. If an implanted VeriChip were linked to your financial accounts, it would be like an unsteal-able credit or debit card. (well, almost unstealable; thieves could always cut off your arm or hand, or whatever organ your chip was implanted in) To make any purchase, all you would have to do is wave your hand past a scanner at the point of purchase, and maybe sign your name, or press "Agree" or whatever. It would be very convenient. There really aren't any more technical hurdles to prevent this from being set up, after all, RFIDs merely generate a 16 digit number, right? Isn't that all your credit card does?

Banks would love this system too. As of 2006, credit card fraud has cost them over $750 billion/year. There would be a huge incentive for them to move to the much more secure implantable chip-based money system... especially if they could convince consumers and vendors to bear the cost of chipping everybody and installing the scanners!

There's another reason banks might like this. Going to a completely cashless economy would put a lot of power in the hands of the administrators of this system. Today, if you run afoul of your bank or credit card company, you have to pay cash for things. If the chip in your arm suddenly becomes access to all your money, your identity, your licenses to drive/work/fish/hunt/whatever, and your passport -you will be virtually unable to function in society if you go afoul the system.
Considering how many people have been falsely included on the national "No Fly" list, this should give everybody serious pause before jumping headfirst into a cashless future. Linking a person's life to a microchip is an excessive amount of power to be entrusting to administrators. A simple Google search of "RFID mark of the Devil" will give you over 11,000 hits connecting to Christian groups who see an RFID-based monetary system as a fulfillment of the Revelations 13:17 prophecy:

"..And that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark [of Satan:]"

Whatever your religious beliefs might be, it is at least somewhat understandable why they would make this connection.

If you aren't religious, but you consider director Aaron Russo a credible source, you might also be concerned by what he says his friend Nicholas Rockefeller told him about RFID chips. (it's in the last 30 seconds or so)

This book
So, let's at least agree that RFID chips have some amazing potentials; potentials to do quite a bit of good... and quite a bit of harm. Katherine Albrecht does a very nice job of outlining these. She is absolutely not an unbiased author- and that's a good thing. She clearly sees the dangers of RFID as outweighing the benefits, and I am inclined to agree, but the tone of Spychips is entirely reasonable, and acknowledges that RFID do have potentially beneficial functions, if they can be deployed in a controlled and ethical manner. The book is quite readable, and there are a lot of good references (including some of my links, above). I think her writing is aimed at lay people who are minimally familiar with RFID, but unless you are an expert in the field, I think Spychips probably has something to offer everybody. It is a well-regarded book on a very important subject, so I had no problem giving it five stars.

You got the power!
I wouldn't paint this bleak picture of an Orwellian RFID future just to depress you. Neither would Katherine Albrecht. There is actually quite a lot you can do to shape the role of RFIDs in coming years. This is the same kind of stuff I tell you in all my reviews. The future belongs to you, as long you become/remain engaged in the issue and exercise your sovereign power as a voter, a consumer, and a member of your community. So here's the run down:

As a voter: Sit down at your computer, or pick up a pen, and write your elected representative about your concerns of RFID.
It doesn't have to be fancy. Just keep it simple and direct. You may not get a response, but the act of doing it feels empowering, and if you do get a response, it's even more so! I think for the most part, elected officials probably would rather not hear from their constituents, unless it gives them a read on public sentiment that they are looking for, or suggests a direction which may be beneficial to know in their next election. I try to write my letters in a manner that highlights how I am helping them find (or correct) their paths towards the popular will. It's a "more flies with honey" kind of thing.

"I don't know... it sounds like a lot of trouble.."

Believe me, I get it. I've written literally hundreds of letters to different officials, but that's kind of my schtick. It's my hobby. You may have kids, outside interests and a thousand other things you would rather be doing than writing that letter. Let me just suggest this: you live in a democracy that works best when people participate. It's not unreasonable to suggest each citizen write five letters to their elected officials in the course of their lifetimes, is it? Let one of those letters be regarding appropriate use of RFIDs. If writing is out of the question, consider calling or leaving a message.

Don't forget to contact representatives in your State government. Your voice counts for even more at the local level! (you'll have to do your own Google searches to find the addresses/phone numbers appropriate for your area)

As a consumer:
Spychips offers several very useful case studies in which German test markets caused major stores to drop products with RFIDs. Check out this link!
There are a ton of coordinated consumer activities. Boycotts tend to get attention, and don't require a whole lot of effort on your part.
Here's something similar, and very timely (01 August 2010): a mass-protest of Wal-Mart. There's a phone number included, but if you happen to be in Wal-Mart anyhow (which you shouldn't, for ten thousand reasons), complaining to a manager in person is probably even better. If he gets six or seven people saying something - and managers across the nation have similar experiences, maybe they'll get the idea that we don't like the RFIDs. A simple Google search will reveal boycotts and protest efforts for a whole host of products. Please observe some (or all!) of these boycotts, and please take five minutes from your day to make a phone call or two.

As a member of your community
Write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper. If you are a member of a small business association, consider advertising together the fact that you do NOT use RFID tags (in distinction to Wal-Mart) as a potential draw for customers. Those who care will be looking for somewhere to shop, now that they're boycotting Wal-Mart. If you want to participate in picket activity in your area, I'll bet Google can find you five places that would be happy to have your support- just search "protest RFID" and then (your area). You can participate as much or little as you like, but do something!

Good Luck!

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