Radio Frequency Identification Tags (RFIDs) are a type of automatic identification method that's already being used to track everything from prescription drugs to pets and, in some cases, even humans.
Experts predict 33 billion of these tiny chips will be produced by 2010 -- 30 times the number produced in 2005.
An example of the rice-sized "Verichip," an implantable RFID tag.
Some tout these information tags as the new-and-improved bar code, as RFIDs are capable of holding much more information and do not require line-of-sight scanning, meaning they can be read from a distance.
"When you buy a can of Coke with a barcode on there, all that will tell is that it's a can of Coke. With an RFID tag, if you bought a sweater, it would not just tell that it's a certain kind of sweater, it will tell you it's sweater No. 2,000,456," says Bartek Muszynski, the president of Vancouver-based RFID consulting firm NJE Consulting Inc.
This is why drug maker Pfizer plans to attach RFID tags to all shipments of its popular drug Viagra by the end of the first quarter 2006, and other manufacturers are following suit. RFIDs provide a novel and effective way to deter counterfeiting. As it stands, many companies use the tags to track inventory, but RFIDs are set to enter the mainstream market in the near future.
At the heart of the growing controversy surrounding RFIDs is whether or not they will one day represent a threat to personal health, security or privacy.
Consumers Have a Right to Know
The potential implications of a microchip that can track an object's movement and location, as well as things like temperature (for food items like milk) and perhaps one day human body functions, medical records, bank account numbers and even how many eggs are left in your refrigerator, are just beginning to be felt.
Several libraries, for instance, have begun to attach RFIDs to books as a tracking device. However, what is not being addressed is that if a book is being tracked, so may be the person carrying it.
According to GS1 Canada, the international standards body that governs RFID requirements, CEO Arthur Smith, safeguards have been built into RFID tags to prevent abuse. For instance:
* A "kill switch" allows a tag to be rendered useless when it leaves a store.
* Data on RFIDs is encrypted.
However, as more and more companies move tags from warehouse cases onto individual items in stores, more security issues are raised.
"They [consumers] have the right to know whether a tag is embedded in the product, the right to have RFID tags removed or deactivated when the products are purchased, the right to opt out of RFID-enabled services, the right to access the RFID tag's data and the right to know when, where and why the tags are being read," said Julie England, vice president at Texas Instruments Inc.
Other tags, such as those attached to cell phones, credit cards and "contactless" payment methods (such as those given out by ExxonMobile to pay for gas station purchases), are designed to be taken with a person everywhere, which means the tag will not be deactivated at any time.
An example of an RFID tag that's embedded inside a label.
Positive Uses for RFIDs
RFID tags are allowing for some pretty amazing new inventions. Among them:
* Talking prescriptions, which allow people with visual impairments to "read" the drug's name, warnings, etc. using a battery-powered talking prescription reader.
* Pet identification. Tiny microchips can be implanted into pets so they can be located and returned to their owners if lost.
* Cattle identification. RFIDs can replace barcode tags and identify an animal's herd of origin.
* Automatic toll collection. Perhaps the most common way RFIDs are currently used, the tags allow tolls to be debited from a prepaid account when vehicles drive by.
* The Smart Key/Smart Start option for some vehicles. This allows the owner to open their car's doors and start the car while the key is still in their pocket or purse (an RFID senses the key when it is within a range of about three feet).
* Prison tracking wristbands, which can tell if an inmate has tried to remove the band and sends an alert to a prison computer in response.
Microchips for People?
The most controversial use of RFIDs is whether or not they should be implanted into people. Already, 18 staff members of the Mexican Attorney General's office have been implanted with the "Verichip" to control access to a data room.
More frivolously, two nightclubs -- the Baja Beach Club in Barcelona, Spain and one in Rotterdam, Netherlands -- use an implantable Verichip to identify their VIP customers and allow them to buy drinks.
Business owner Amal Graafstra also had RFID chips implanted into his hands in 2005.
"There's a small 3-millimeter-by-13-millimeter glass RFID tag in both the right and left hands. I can get in my front door, in my car door, and log into my computer," Graafstra said.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first RFID chips that can be implanted into humans in October 2004. These chips are meant to store personal medical information that could potentially save lives and limit injuries from errors in medical treatments -- but they don't come without risk.
The FDA warns of the following potential complications from implanting Verichips into humans:
* Adverse tissue reaction
* Migration of the implanted transponder
* Failure of implanted transponder
* Electrical hazards
* Possible incompatibility with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
Another company, Lauren Scott California, plans to release a new type of children's pajama by the end of this year that would be embedded with an RFID tag. Parents would set up RFID readers around their home that would create "a perimeter that the child can't pass without a parent knowing," said Lauren Scott, the company's chief executive.
"Spy Chips" or Information Powerhouses?
RFIDs are set to explode across the world in the coming years, bringing with it an inevitable surge of new inventions and new concerns. Some consumer advocates have already dubbed RFIDs "spy chips" and are concerned that "Big Brother" could one day use them for mass surveillance.
"The key to success is finding this right balance between privacy protection and the appropriate use of data," England said.
Adding in even more food for thought was California State Senator Debra Bowen at a 2003 hearing. She summed up much of the concern surrounding RFIDs in one sentence: "How would you like it if, for instance, one day you realized your underwear was reporting on your whereabouts?"