Letting Big Brother Watch Less
Periodically here at the Show-Me Institute, we like to look through the rolls of pending bills in the Missouri General Assembly and offer insightful, balanced commentary about select pieces of legislation. Granted, sometimes these insights turn into week-long rants about milk, ice cream cones, or beer, but more often than not they can lead to thoughts about issues such as this: Senate Bill 786.
SB 786, properly known as the RFID Right to Know Act of 2008, is a bill introduced by Sen. Maida Coleman that seeks to require that every item sold in Missouri containing a Radio Frequency Identification chip be conspicuously labeled as such. This bill has been introduced in various forms twice before, but its failure to pass is in no way indicative of its value as an article of legislation. If nothing else, the time that has passed since the bill’s first introduction in 2006 has made it more relevant.
RFID chips, for the technologically disinclined, are tiny devices that consist of a combination of electronic circuitry and a tiny antenna. RFID chips have long been used as security devices in bookstores and libraries, but the continual march of technology (as well as Moore’s Law) have made the chips smaller and the circuitry better to the point where RFID chips are now being used in tag form in supply chain management, as a replacement for UPC barcodes, and in implantable form in veterinary medicine, as a method to identify stray pets. Use of these implantable chips, in particular, seems to be growing the fastest, as a number of companies have begun to use them for security identification, and some high-end nightclubs are using them to allow VIPs to pay for drinks with a wave of the arm.
While such convenience may seem appealing, the privacy issues that come along with RFID chips are considerable. Most of today’s chips are passive, meaning that they will sit idle, hidden in a pair of jeans or a sweater, until a radio signal activates them and triggers a response. The problem is that their size makes them nearly impossible to find, and their passive nature (which is not destroyed by a bout with the washing machine or dryer) makes them susceptible to being activated again possibly while you’re walking down the street.
This isn’t to say that RFID chips should be banned. Quite the contrary they offer an enormous potential for consumers and advertisers alike. However, if they are to be used effectively, bills like SB 786 would provide a valuable service to consumers, letting them know that the devices are embedded in their purchases. Such identification allows customers to choose whether they would like to purchase the item, and gives them the knowledge they need to destroy the chips if they wish (as a corollary, passage of this bill may drastically increase the number of people who regularly microwave their clothing as such an action is an effective method of disabling RFID tags).
Technology can open up some frightening doors (and, apparently, can be seen by some as the "mark of the beast"), but if we act now to account for it, we can assure that privacy and the other individual liberties of citizens can be assured.