January 1, 2004

Big Brother at the Grocery Store: The RFID Fight and McCormick Place Activism

This past September, Chicago played host to the formal unveiling of a major new surveillance technology, which may finally destroy what privacy we have left.

That technology is Radio Frequency Identification (RFID). Each consumer item that you buy or use would be outfitted with a tiny computer chip.(I once saw a one-inch-long vial containing 150 such chips suspended in water with plenty of room to spare.) Each chip would be uniquely numbered and enabled to receive and retransmit an unending stream of high-frequency electromagnetic broadcasts.

RFID is very different from Universal Product Codes. For instance, all Pepsi cans share the same UPC, but each individual can of Pepsi would bear its own unique RFID. And RFID has another feature that would make John Ashcroft drool. Marketers could use RFID to track each individual can of Pepsi around the clock, along with every other physical item you buy or use.

RFIDs could be widespread by the end of 2004, if not sooner. More than 100 corporations have already agreed to implement RFID, including Wal-Mart, which is flexing its marketing muscle to force manufacturers to begin embedding RFIDs into merchandise.

The PR line supporting RFID bills the technology as "an improved bar code," an antitheft tracking device and as a tool to aid consumers (since market researchers can better track and respond to consumer habits). One PR possibility is to rename RFID "green tags."

Still, consumer surveys on RFID show sizeable opposition from the public -- more than 80 percent opposition in some surveys. And the pro-RFID advocates understand this. We know this because a national consumer advocacy group called CASPIAN (Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering) was able to secure "confidential" documents from an RFID-consortium website.

Dispatch from the You-Won't-Believe-It Department: CASPIAN got these documents by using the consortium's website's own search engine searching for items bearing the word "confidential." That turned up 68 "confidential" documents, which spoke of the need to "pacify" uppity activists and hope consumers will be "apathetic" and "resign themselves to the inevitability of [RFID]".

The momentum towards successfully implementing RFID is possible because the general public doesn't know anything about it. The industry hopes to implement RFID before people learn about it, and then make it mandatory for all consumer items.

The public has good reason to be suspicious since RFID is full of problems. RFID has a failure rate of 20 percent,and could involve a considerable increase in high-frequency electromagnetic radiation, whose long-term health effects (while still unclear) could include decreased immune systems and increased cancers.

Even if RFID works and is safe, we're looking at possibly wide-scale obliteration of privacy rights and civil liberties. Your every move could be monitored,courtesy the very clothes you're wearing. What's more, we could see a marked increase of false thefts. Apparently, with RFID, there's no way to tell the difference between something I bought and gave to my friend as a gift, and something I bought that my friend stole from me.

The RFID worldwide network was formally unveiled in Chicago at the Electronic Product Code Symposium at McCormick Place on September 16. CASPIAN activists sought to protest the unveiling inside the McCormick Place Main Concourse itself, where they would distribute leaflets and wear anti-RFID T-shirts. McCormick Place personnel said doing so would be grounds for removal.

The Illinois ACLU then entered the fray, and worked on CASPIAN's behalf to file a temporary restraining order against McCormick Place. The convention center folded right before the court proceeding began and granted CASPIAN their wish to protest in the Main Concourse. CASPIAN founder Katherine Albrecht was even allowed to enter the Symposium itself and speak with symposium attendees -- provided she pay $75 for an event day-pass, which she did.

Meanwhile, a protest took place outside at McCormick Place's infamous "First Amendment Zone." (Silly me, I thought all of America was a "First Amendment Zone".) Some 30 activists - nearly all of whom were aligned with the religious and political right - took part in the protest.

One sign at the protest read "No King but Jesus", and one woman "secretly" gave me a copy of the right-wing newspaper American Free Press.

Chicago Left activists should make a toast to these anti-RFID efforts. Not only did it combat RFID, but it helped forge a path for future protests inside McCormick Place. To which I say: carpe diem.

To learn more about RFIDs and what you can do to help stop RFIDs, contact CASPIAN at 888/353-5659 or visit stoprfid.com, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (epic.org, whose website links to the "confidential" documents) or the Electronic Freedom Foundation (eff.org).