RFID: Readily Forced Information Distortion

RFID chip

The sign of a civilization in decline is when there is widespread fear of the future and longing for the past.   While America may not yet be in decline we are certainly fearing the future.   Case in point, California’s decision to back off its deployment of drivers’ licenses with embedded radio-frequency identification chips (RFID) in them.   RFID chips are small electronic devices embedded with a unique code that communicates with an electronic reader usually within a range of 1 to 2 inches.

We can thank the privacy-fundamentalists for this, for they love nothing better than to spread fear based on misinformation about technology.  As supposedly pro-tech Wired Magazine writes, this is “spy-friendly technology.”  The article claims that “Privacy advocates worry that, if more states begin embracing RFID, the licenses could become mandatory nationwide and evolve into a government-run surveillance tool to track the public’s movements.”   It goes on to say “law enforcement already monitors drivers’ whereabouts via the mass deployment of license-plate readers. But the ability to scan for identification cards in public areas could evolve into another surveillance tool.”

That sure scares me.   I don’t want the government knowing when I head into a bar right before closing.  The only problem is that this fear is completely without grounds.  As ITIF has written before, RFID has a read range of a few inches.  Every morning when I take the Metro to work I wish the read range was farther as I have to take my Metro fare card with its embedded RFID tag out of my wallet and almost physically touch it to the reader.  Or how about my RFID-enabled office key fob. Or my RFID-enabled credit card.   My RFID-enabled passport.  Etc. etc.   These technologies simply do not allow someone to be tracked.   You cannot scan these licenses in public as in everyone walking down the street has their license scanned.  Repeat after me: You cannot be scanned in public with these.

But privacy fundamentalists know that all they have to say in response is “yes you can,” for they have impunity when it comes to this kind of fiction.   No one calls them this blatant distortion of reality, in part because too many in the media look at these stories as “he said, she said.”  When is the public and the media going to call the privacy fundamentalists on their dishonesty?   Given that the privacy community has been saying these kinds of things for over a decade and the media and policy makers still take it seriously (as they do when they treat anti-RFID fundamentalist Kathryn Albrecht seriously, even after she wrote in her book “SpyChips” that the government has a secret plan to forcibly implant tracking chips under our skin; which they are carrying out at Area 51), the answer is probably, never.

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About the author

Dr. Robert D. Atkinson is one of the country’s foremost thinkers on innovation economics. With has an extensive background in technology policy, he has conducted ground-breaking research projects on technology and innovation, is a valued adviser to state and national policy makers, and a popular speaker on innovation policy nationally and internationally. He is the author of "Innovation Economics: The Race for Global Advantage" (Yale, forthcoming) and "The Past and Future of America’s Economy: Long Waves of Innovation That Power Cycles of Growth" (Edward Elgar, 2005). Before coming to ITIF, Atkinson was Vice President of the Progressive Policy Institute and Director of PPI’s Technology & New Economy Project. Ars Technica listed Atkinson as one of 2009’s Tech Policy People to Watch. He has testified before a number of committees in Congress and has appeared in various media outlets including CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, NPR, and NBC Nightly News. He received his Ph.D. in City and Regional Planning from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1989.
  • John Fisher

    After reading your article, I looked up RFID tech and particularly read-distance. For privacy issues you are taking a polarized stand here, perhaps as a rhetorical technique. As usual the reality is more complicated. There are both powered and antenna-powered ( so called passive) chips, presumably privacy concerns are with the passive chips due to size and cost. There seems to be no question that unauthorized reading of passive chips can be done quite cheaply, although read-distance is a few meters. However, given recent revelations about the Internet and phone system near-universal spying, it seems to me that the RFID problem is minor, with a few exceptional cases like passports.