Watching Your Every Move - A Cautionary Technological
Jeffrey R. Harrow
Principal Technologist, The Harrow Group
Larger than a dust mote (but not by much); inexpensive to
manufacture and distribute and deploy; millions, and later
billions and trillions of them -- virtually everywhere. They
will be sowed as if by the four winds, lodging into clothing,
tennis balls, tools, passports, car keys, car VIN plates,
books, banknotes, pamphlets, and letters. They will become
pervasive. And wherever one is, someone will know. (Or at
least will have the potential to know.) This is not a futuristic
discussion of nanobots or other bleeding-edge technologies;
this is instead the likely results for the lineage of already
commercially deployed "Radio Frequency Identification Tags"
(RFID Tags) which seem poised to replace today's retail "UPC
Today's bar codes identify one SKU (Sales Keeping Unit) of
a product (one particular UPC bar code may identify a 12-ounce
can of a particular vendor's cola drink.) Every such can of
cola is marked by the same bar code. When the bar code is
waved in front of the store's optical scanner (which is why
most grocery carts must be unloaded for checkout), the bar
code does not identify that unique can of cola; it only identifies
that this is "a" 12-ounce can of cola from that manufacturer;
the store's computer then looks up its price and adds it to
Once you've purchased that can of cola and left the store,
regardless of how many times it might later be scanned (difficult
except at a checkout counter because the bar code on the can
must be read optically), no one could know if that was the
particular can of cola that you purchased from a specific
store -- only that it is one of millions of such 12-ounce
cans of cola from that manufacturer.
Enter The Wireless Tag
But once RFID tags replace UPC bar codes, things will be
more than a little different. Because each and every RFID
tag will likely carry the same information as a UPC bar code,
plus an additional globally unique serial number! That means
that if you buy a specific 12-ounce can of this cola from
your grocery store, where you've identified yourself either
by swiping your "loyalty card" for a discount or by paying
with a credit or debit card (or even if you pay by cash, as
we'll see later), the store's computer knows that you bought
that very specific physical can of cola, and no other can
You didn't even have to unload your grocery cart, because
the "Radio Frequency" part of the RFID tag's name means that
it's designed to be read at a distance. It means that you
might just be able to wheel your full grocery cart straight
out the door, and the door sensor will automatically total
up your order and charge it to your payment account. Now,
depending on how the store's computer is networked, the grocery
chain's computer will also know exactly which can of cola
you purchased, when, and from which store. Very convenient
for all concerned, actually.
The Dark Side...
But consider where this technology could, easily, lead, as
an infrastructure of these RFID tag sensors/readers becomes
widespread throughout society:
As you continue down the street, either drinking the cola
or carrying it in your shopping bag, the sensors at the doorways
to each store you enter or pass, which are always querying
for any tags that get within range, could also be receiving
a tiny identification response from your can of cola! But
since this store's computer system knows that it didn't have
a 12-ounce can of cola with that tag's unique serial number,
it ignores it and doesn't try to charge you. Nevertheless,
that store's computer did know that that specific can of cola
passed its way. And it may well record such trivia as a matter
of course. And forward it on to its chain's master computer...
In fact this could occur wherever you walked, leaving invisible
crumbs of information about where your can of cola passed.
In excruciating detail.
But isn't this trivial? After all, who cares if every can
of cola can be tracked? The issue is that these many sensors
wouldn't only note that your can of cola passed by -- they
would also note the passing of your car key's unique ID; the
unique ID of your driver's license, and even the unique ID
of each and every dollar bill in your wallet. Toss that empty
can of cola into a trash can and the next store you stroll
by would still be collecting all the unique numbers of the
other things you're carrying, and the things you're wearing.
And if all the chains' main computers and those of smaller
stores made this mass of random information available to say,
a Marketing firm, or to other stores along your path (for
a fee, of course), or to a government organization upon demand,
then a very detailed picture of "You" -- your travel habits,
your spending habits (remember those individually tagged dollar
bills?), almost everything about you, could be mixed and matched
and dissected in ways that you might, or might not, agree
with. This might be the ultimate "data mining" warehouse.
...And The Bright Side!
Those and related privacy issues are significant, so why
would we pursue implementing such technologies? The answer,
as is so often the case, is "money," because along with the
dangers, such active tags offer great benefits and economic
Such ubiquitous RFID tags (or any technological cousins)
could dramatically improve all facets of the supply chain;
every individual item could be uniquely tracked throughout
the entire manufacturing and distribution and retail channels.
It would be very difficult for items to "go missing" when
their absence could be noted almost immediately by wireless
sensors, and their location tracked. It would be trivial to
identify, say, packages of meat that had reached their "Sell
By" date, or every recalled child's toy on a store shelf or
anywhere within the supply chain. Pallets or shipping containers
loaded with many items could expose their exact contents to
a reader. And far more, as such efficiencies allow manufacturing
and retail costs to be lowered, leading to higher profits
and/or retail price relief.
And note that the benefits of RFID tags are not limited to
the supply chain. On the home front we could see refrigerators
and pantries that always know exactly what was in them, and
even warn of expired items. Tie that in with an Internet-connected
home computer network and you could go to your favorite food
Web site and ask it for a selection of recipes that you can
make tonight with the ingredients you already have on-hand!
And you might never again lose your car keys. Or your remote...
Or a wandering child...
For Good And For Ill, It's Really Already A 'Done Deal'
Clearly, such technology offers both benefits and risks,
so one might wish to "slow down" and explore all of these
issues prior to implementation. But the problem with that
technique is "Moore's Law," which for over 35 years has accurately
predicted that, in-effect, the number of transistors on a
chip, and hence its the chip's computing power, will double
every 18 months, while the cost remains stable.
Because of this incredible and compounding exponential rate
of innovation, technology moves far faster than the societal
discussions and plans and rules and laws that might control
its offspring. We seem to always be playing a game of catch-up
as we integrate such devices into society. Yet the economics
are such that "slowing down" really isn't an option.
For example, the widespread adoption of RFID chips, for all
of the supply chain benefits we've been discussing, is already
a "done deal." Both Wal-Mart and the US Department of Defense
have now required that every supplier add an RFID-tag to every
crate or pallet of items (although not yet to the individual
items themselves) that they deliver. With these two giants
of commerce demanding RFID tags, a huge number of manufacturers
across all industry segments are now gearing up to meet the
deadlines, or face losing what might be their largest customers.
And once manufacturers are successfully RFID-tagging every
case or pallet and the cost of producing the RFID tags falls,
how far of a stretch would it be for manufacturers, distributors,
and retailers to later demand tagging every individual item
to bring supply chain visibility to its ultimate conclusion?
The Cautionary Side
As is so often the case these days, it seems that this technology
is coming; in fact is already here at the crate and pallet
level. And because of its benefits, it seems likely that tagging
technology will, eventually, make that final leap to uniquely
defining just about everything. But the dark side is there
as well, demanding very careful, thoughtful, study. As we
implement these technologies, we should take care to implement
them in a way that will preserve, or at least knowingly and
deliberately give up a minimum of the "privacy" that we have
always taken for granted. We don't want to allow such potentially
far-reaching changes to happen invisibly, "by accident," as
a result of technological innovation.
Broadening the RFID tag example used above to technologies
in general, some privacy tradeoffs may be worthwhile; others
may not. But "change" is certain. It's only by educating ourselves,
and by thinking things through in-advance, that we will be
in a position to rationally control the results.
We do have the opportunity to realize many of technologies'
benefits while keeping their dark sides at bay. It behooves
each of us to determine the acceptable results earlier, rather
Let's make sure that we create a world that each of us, quite
literally, is willing to live in. Because we will. And our
This essay is original and was specifically prepared for publication at Future Brief. A brief biography of Jeff Harrow can be found at our main
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© 2004, Jeffrey Harrow, all rights reserved.