New Internationalist

Seriously

Issue 371

True tales of a mixed up world

What do Wal-Mart stores, salmon stocks in North America, the US armed forces, Italian hospital patients, the Attorney General of Mexico and Japanese schoolchildren all have in common? They’re all using special microchips which carry and transmit information via radio signals.

The technology known as Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) is most often used by retail stores to manage their inventory. However, it is becoming more frequently used by humans as a way to track their movements and allow or deny access to high-security areas.

Each chip carries a unique ID number and information which can be read by a special scanner. New chips are being developed to include Global Positions System (GPS) technology, which would allow anyone to be tracked anywhere in the world. Companies such as Alien Technology (seriously!) have been filling orders for hundreds of millions of units from companies such as Gillette, Procter & Gamble and Philip Morris who have begun incorporating RFID tags into their products. RFID tags, dubbed ‘spy chips’ by consumer groups, are nearly invisible to the eye and can be sewn into garments, layered into plastics, and printed with special inks. That little dot in the ‘i’ of a word on a soda bottle might contain a spy chip.

US-based Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering (CASPIAN), have uncovered confidential documents from the Grocery Manufacturers Association, including slide shows discussing the need to ‘pacify’ people concerned about the technology, and from PR firms on how to ‘neutralize the opposition’ and ‘drive adoption’. One PR firm, Fleischman-Hillard, recommends renaming the RFID tags as ‘green tags’, while another document hopes that consumers will ‘resign themselves to the inevitability of it’.

It is unclear whether one can tune in to the BBC World Service with them, though one industry insider has suggested that plans are afoot for integrating easy-listening stations and on-demand elevator music. This could prove to be their undoing.

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