RFID Chips and Your Privacy

By Mary O. Foley

You probably aren’t aware of it, but some of today’s most modern conveniences are provided by tiny computer chips. For example, you may have a gadget in your car that automatically pays a road toll as you drive through the toll booth. This is accomplished with a computer chip. Or you may use a security card to gain access to your office building. This too is made possible by a computer chip.

Many of these computer chips communicate information about your purchases, your credit card numbers and even your identity. These special chips are a type known as radio frequency identification (RFID). They send data over radio signals to special antennas, or readers. From there, the data goes into a computer database.

RFID chips are embedded into a growing number of items you have in your wallet or in your car, and they may soon be added to items you buy in stores. RFID chips are increasingly being used in payment systems, such as charge cards and gas station express payment fobs. Many people appreciate the convenience because it eliminates the step of swiping a charge card. Instead, you merely wave your wallet or key chain over a scanner. In addition, since 2006, U.S. passports contain these chips, which hold a digital image of the passport holder. Some states are requiring that driver’s licenses feature the technology too.

As the chips get smaller -- some are no bigger than a grain of rice -- and cheaper, companies such as Procter & Gamble, General Motors and others are experimenting with installing them in products sold in stores. Experts predict that someday you will go to a supermarket, load your cart with goods tagged with RFID chips and walk out the door without having your items rung up by a cashier. The price of the goods will be automatically tallied and charged to your RFID-enabled credit card simply by walking past a bank of antennas.

Convenience vs. Security
While RFID technology allows faster commuting or more convenient shopping, it may also allow others to know more than they should about you. The fact that these chips can be scanned invisibly and can carry so much private data has triggered concerns that personal information could fall into the wrong hands. Some privacy advocates deride the technology as “spychips,” asserting that any person with an RFID reader, standing in the right place, could pilfer data for reasons ranging from identity theft to government surveillance.

“There is a threat to individuals and to our society,” argues Ari Schwartz, deputy director of the Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT), a nonprofit civil liberties advocacy group. Those at risk of being stalked, such as victims of domestic violence or law enforcement officials, could be most vulnerable, he says. As for society, over time, the use of this technology could cost Americans their civil liberties. “We could find ourselves living in a Minority Report kind of world,” he warns, referring to the 2002 movie about government surveillance gone awry.

But RFID proponents note that all new technologies have their detractors. “Many of these same arguments were raised with barcodes,” notes Mark Roberti, editor of RFID Journal magazine. “There are probably 30-40 million people in the U.S. every day who carry RFID transponders on their body or in their car, and there has never been a single instance of anyone having their privacy infringed,” he claims.

Moreover, some IT security experts note that the risk of eavesdropping is much greater over a cell phone, which has its own power source -- unlike most RFID chips -- and can be tracked over many miles instead of a few feet.

How to Foil RFID Chips
Since RFID chips are likely to become more prevalent, we need to be aware of the risks. If you want to evade trackers, Roberti offers the following tips:

  • Wrap a piece of foil around your charge card, key fob, passport or other chip-containing item when it’s not in use. This will block the radio signal.
  • Smash the chip with a blunt object.
  • Jolt the chip with static electricity.
  • Physically remove the chip yourself.

CDT’s Schwartz adds that some companies, such as GM, are responding to consumer concerns by developing information for their owner’s manuals or product labels about how to disable or remove RFID chips. Says Schwartz: “In terms of protecting consumers, we see this as progress.”

Most experts say that there is little immediate risk to consumers from the current uses of RFID chips for toll collection, payment systems and identification. But it is a good idea for consumers to be aware of developments of this new technology so that they can best protect themselves.

Photo: @iStockphoto.com/ra-photos

Mary O. Foley is a business journalist based in the Washington, D.C., area. Her recent work has appeared on IncTechnology.com.

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