News Stories

Tracking our Every Move

A new tracking system called Auto-ID uses highly miniaturized computers to track products, even when they're being used and worn. Every physical item, from a can of Coke to clothes to toothpaste, will have its own unique information in the form of an embedded chip. The chip sends out a signal that allows it to communicate with reader devices. Auto-ID will eventually replace bar codes, because it not only identifies the kind of object?it identifies each object separately. You and your friend may have bought the same sweater at the same store, but you'll each be wearing a different Auto-ID.

This number is transmitted by a radio frequency ID tag (RFID) in or on the product. These tiny tags will cost less than 1 cent each and are "somewhere between the size of a grain of sand and a speck of dust."

The Auto-ID will not only be read when you purchase a product. It will also be read in airports, seaports, highways, distribution centers, warehouses and retail stores. Companies will be able to find out where their products are at all times. One Auto-ID official says, "Theft will be drastically reduced because items will report when they are stolen, their smart tags also serving as a homing device toward their exact location."

The European Central Bank will embed these tags in the fibers of Euro bank notes by 2005, so they can trace where each one has been, meaning that the anonymity of using cash will be eliminated.

Health surveillance is another way Auto-ID can be sued. Prescription bottles be tagged with devices that allow doctors to remotely monitor patient compliance with prescriptions. If the pill bottle is given to another person, who does not have a prescription for the medication, it can be traced. One of the first clothing manufacturers to embed microchip transmitters in its clothes is Benetton, which is surprising considering its left wing advertising. The Italian retailer will be able to track its garments from their point of manufacture to the moment they're sold in any of its 5,000 shops worldwide.

Other manufacturers, including luxury retailer Prada, plan to use the inventory tags. Procter & Gamble, Wal-Mart and British retailer Tesco are researching the smart tags for restocking, anti-theft and anti-counterfeit purposes.

An Auto-ID tag could be programmed to store information about the person who bought a garment, allowing salespeople to make suggestions to the shopper the next time he or she enters the store. These "spy clothes" make Wayne Madsen, of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, nervous. He says, "There really needs to be legislation if companies are doing this. They say it's for internal use. But what would prevent them from sharing it with third parties, with the government or criminal investigators?"

The Bush administration is planning to require Internet service providers to be part of a centralized system that will allow broad monitoring of the Internet and surveillance of all its users. The proposal is part of a report called "The National Strategy to Secure Cyberspace." Besides intercepting terrorist communications, the monitoring system would attempt to prevent the infiltration of new computer viruses.

A central monitoring system would be a technical challenge because the internet has thousands of independent service providers, from tiny operations to giant corporations like AOL. Stewart Baker, a lawyer who represents several large internet providers, says, "Internet service providers are concerned about the privacy implications of this as well as liability," since providing access to live feeds could be interpreted as an illegal wiretap.

Tiffany Olson, of the President's Critical Infrastructure Protection Board, says the proposal does not necessarily require monitoring at an individual user level. "We don't have anybody that is able to look at the entire picture," she says. "When something is happening, we don't know it's happening until it's too late."

An early draft of the proposal suggested the monitoring would be controlled by private industry, but the new proposal wants the government to be in control. An official of a major data services company says monitoring capabilities can?t be provided to the government without real-time monitoring of individuals, and compares the new proposal to Carnivore, the internet wiretap system set up by the FBI. He says, "Part of monitoring the internet and doing real-time analysis is to be able to track incidents while they are occurring?Am I analogizing this to Carnivore? Absolutely. But in fact, it's 10 times worse. Carnivore was working on much smaller feeds and could not scale. This is looking at the whole internet."

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