Spy Chips

Be(a)ware of how your belongings could track you

This book will make you look at every store-bought item you own or debate owning with curiosity and skepticism. It was published two years ago, but if you’ve yet to explore the fascinating, potentially paranoia-inducing world of RFID, I highly recommend this one. This book emphasizes the cautionary, consumer-advocate perspective regarding the Radio Frequency Identification tracking being proposed — and used! — by certain companies (i.e. Gillette, Procter & Gamble and Wal-Mart). Some of the stories were familiar (specifically, the nightclub in Spain that chips its members), but there were plenty of bits that were new and interesting to me, like the fact IMB has filed for several patents, including an RFID-enabled closet. Katherine Albrecht and Liz McIntyre do take a pretty sensationalist tone — “Big Brother” is mentioned several times — but the scope of the research is impressive (lots of endnotes) and their insight into how this tech could be abused is thought provoking.

Total Information Awareness, or “TIA” for short, was a Defense Department project designed to capture information about virtually every transaction in every commercial database in the United States. These records – on everything from our phone calls and bank deposits to our store and mail order purchases – were to have been consolidated into centralized government dtatabases where they could be watched around the clock for any unusual activity. The Total Information Awareness project was de-funded by Congress after a public outcry (some believe it is now operating as a “black bag account,” not subject to Congressional scrutiny), but the drive to access increasingly detailed knowledge about us has not gone away. One more terrorist incident and bureaucrats will be clamoring to tear down the remaining shreds of privacy we have left.

While we were successful in disabling passive tags with the microwave, we don’t recommend you try this yourself. Not only is it dangerous, it would surely damage items in which the tags are embedded – and it could potentially harm the microwave itself. We’ve been hunting for a viable tag killer ever since – one that would not be burdensome, expensive, dangerous, or destructive. We regret to say that we haven’t found one for general consumer use. While drastic measures like crushing the silicon chip with a hammer and cutting the connection between the chip and its antenna kill spychips, the trick is knowing where the tags are located and accessing them – not an easy task since spychips are easily hidden and removing them could damage the items…We’ve heard many tag-killing suggestions over the years, including running the tag through the wash cycle, passing a magnet over it, or subjecting it to a VHS tape eraser. Unfortunately, these are not reliable fixes…Several inventors have contacted us with plans to develop “tag zappers,” so far, they are merely prototypes.

Information aggregators like Chicago-based Information Resources, Inc. (IRI), collect the sales information from cash registers around the country and consolidate it into centralized databases. IRI has been doing it since 1987 and now claims it collects and consolidates data from over thirty-two thousand U.S. food, drug, and mass merchandise retail stores. Never heard of IRI? That’s exactly the problem. While some privacy-conscious consumers may wince when they hand their card to the cashier, most people give little thought to where the data goes after that. The multibillion-dollar infrastructure that captures people’s personal information and traffics it to others is largely invisible.

Under NCR’s “digital receipt” plan, shoppers will have to leave live RFID tags attached to their purchases. Not only does this mean that stores won’t kill the tags at the checkstand, but if privacy concerns prompt you to remove or disable a tag once you get home, you could be destroying your proof of purchase and possibly voiding your warrant, too. As for returns, stores can’t wait to encode purchaser information directly onto products so they can limit the number of items a customer can return or exchange. Several national retailers including KB Toys, Sports Authority, Staples and trendy clothing store Express have already begun monitoring customers’ return and exchange activity through sophisticated databases. If a shopper surpasses her so-called “return allowance” in a given time period, these stores may prohibit any future returns, even if the merchandise is defective. Industry numbers suggest that Express, for example, may now hand 1 to 2 percent of its shoppers a slip of paper reading “RETURN DECLINED” instead of giving them cash or credit slips. While shoppers can get around these restrictions by asking friends to make an exchange for them, in the spychipped future, the item’s RFID tag could be encoded with a “do not return me message,” regardless of who brings it back.

What kind of people could think that stalking strangers is not only acceptable but laudable? Who are these marketers and who gave them the right to spy on us?…Katherine [Albrecht] is in a good position to say how the profession has changed since she received her undergraduate degree in international marketing in the mid-1980s. Back then, marketing education focused on the four Ps: product, price, placement, and promotion. The idea was fairly simple: Make a good product, price it right, put it where people can find it, and tell them how good it is. That’s good, clean, honest free-market business sense. However, in the last fifteen years or so, a new P has overshadowed all the others: People. The new P emphasizes the importance of knowing everything about customers in order to influence their decisions. It’s also about discriminating against the bargain shoppers or the economically disadvantaged while catering to the profitable. This isn’t a bed of roses for the customers at the top, either. Their every move is under the marketer’s microscope, and their valuable shopping data is analyzed for internal purposes or trafficked to the highest bidder…”Barnacle?” “Bottom feeder”? These are just two of the derogatory terms marketers use to describe bargain shoppers…If you’re not dropping big money, stores don’t want you breathing their air, pushing a grocery cart, or taking up the cashier’s valuable time with your measly purchases.

-- Steven Leckart 05/23/07


While it may occasionally occur to workers that their [employee ID and access] badges can squeal on their movements, there's one place they probably don't expect to find an RFID reader: the bathroom. But a company called Woodward Laboratories has found a way to embed a tag reader into a product they call the "iHygiene Perfect Pump." It's a liquid soap dispenser that doubles as an employee badge reader and monitoring device. To unsuspecting employees, the device appears to be a perfectly normal soap dispenser. But hidden within its sleek plastic exterior is an electronic spy that captures the ID badge number of the person standing at the sink...The handwashing surveillance system requires employees to wear RFID-enabled badges, but soon employees' actual uniforms could report on them instead. The nation's top two uniform rental companies, CIntas (which clothes workers at Starbucks, Disney, Sears, and Wal-Mart) and Ameripride (with clients like Ooutback Steakhouse, 3M, and Cherolet) have quietly begun slipping spychips into employee uniforms to keep track of washing and rental logistics. The tags come encased in sealed plastic disks that can withstand years of commercial laundering, yet still beam out their unique ID numbers whenever they come within range of a reader device.

After minor successes chipping nightclub revelers [in Spain via Applied Digital], the RFID industry turned its marketing efforts to an even more acquiescent crowd: the dead. They were on hand with microchips to implant into the corpses of the victims after the devastating Southeast Asia tsunami, and they're ready to help should research organizations like the University of California decide to embed RFID chips into cadavers and associated body parts. The school is considering microchips as one possible way to stop the illicit trafficking of human remains donated to their school in the wake of lawsuits by donor families.

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