RFID chip: A helpful or scary future tool?

The fastest growing technology in recent years is low-cost Radio Frequency Identification (RFID), which police, industrials, shopkeepers and others use to monitor merchandise. RFID is the perfect tool for such a purpose. Bar codes on merchandise will gradually be replaced by special labels which can store far more data. But independent authorities around the world are already criticizing the device, saying it is yet another attack on privacy, since buying activities and consumer preferences will be more easily stored in a joint database. Experts are warning of the security risks to data stored on every RFID card. Right now, this technology is being used in fairly harmless ways. However, the consequences of its broader use will become evident in the next few years, when RFID labels will be affixed to all consumer products and passports and even as chips implanted in the human body. In Greece, RFID sensors are already used in large clothing and record stores (as plastic labels that trigger alarms if the object is taken out of the store) and at highway toll posts (as E-Pass and TEO pass). Taxis in Attica have also been equipped with an electronic stamp so the authorities can check their validity from a distance. One of the City of Athens’s most ambitious schemes is to use this label as a system to monitor parking that includes a «smart» way of billing drivers. The most advanced applications of RFID abroad are being developed in pilot schemes. At the Extra Future Store supermarket chain in Germany (a chain with stores in Greece), products bear labels that tell management the life cycle of the product, enabling them to replace expired goods. Consumers, on the other hand, are subjected to individually tailored marketing strategies. As they leave the store, they don’t have to wait in line at the cash desk, since goods are scanned and billed automatically. In Britain, the Barbican library uses RFID labels to monitor books on loan. In New York, Amsterdam and Singapore, airports have pilot programs for the movement of luggage. According to estimates, 0.7 percent of the 1.5 billion pieces of luggage moved annually end up at the wrong destination. Each lost piece of luggage costs the airline $100. Until now, the bar code system provided an accuracy rate of 80 percent (about 20 percent of bar codes are damaged and cannot be read). The use of RFID labels raises the accuracy rate to 95 percent. At a school in Texas, pupils have been issued with cards that allow the principal to trace their movements, thereby deterring truancy. According to sources, some Americans have had themselves implanted with microchips so authorities can find them if they are kidnapped. Radio Frequency Identification is also being used to monitor the movement of people through a microchip in new passports. The US authorities are planning to put RFID labels in passports as of this month, with a view to having 64KB chips in all passports within a year’s time. They will contain biometric data such as iris identification and digital fingerprints. There are similar plans afoot for Greek passports, which will have specifications that can incorporate electronic sensors in future. Michalis Mavis – head of the Hellenic Telecommunications Organization (OTE)’s security and risk control service, as well as vice president of the Greek Agency for Protection from Telecommunications Fraud – gave this warning: «Since the content stored on a microchip will not be encoded, anyone will be able to gain access to it and enter the database, which will include sensitive personal information. RFID receivers are sold on the open market. If someone has one of these they can easily monitor someone else’s movements or gain access to information on the person’s passport or ID card. It is very useful technology, but it can, under some circumstances, endanger privacy.» Some Americans fear that when they travel abroad terrorists will be able to ascertain their nationality at a distance, making them more vulnerable to attack. Greece’s Personal Information Protection Authority is one of a number of similar organizations concerned about the issue. Recently they issued a joint decision expressing their concern at the spread of RFID technology. They say it is now possible to monitor consumer behavior and therefore people’s way of life, their movements (via electronic tickets), their habits and even their illnesses (via medication purchases).