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RFID tags: The people say no

When it comes to radio frequency identification tags for humans, the people have spoken.
They hate it.

CNET recently ran a report on companies with technologies that involve implanting RFID chips under people's skin or inside a bracelet. The issue has united people with fairly strong religious beliefs and libertarian privacy advocates.

Advocates say the tags could help paramedics deliver medical help to people in the field, reduce prison violence or give police a way to track victims of kidnapping, a major problem in Latin America.

Even Steve Wozniak, the lovable lug of technology, is promoting human tracking in technology developed by his Wheels of Zeus start-up.

Nearly every reader who wrote about the story expressed outrage and disdain.

"I couldn't help but notice that one of the most effective uses for the RFID tags on humans was in a prison setting--which is exactly what society in general would become, if this particular technology were mandated somehow," Harold Davis of Syracuse, N.Y., wrote.

The fear that the technology will enable governments to keep tabs on everyone was the concern raised most often. Hypothetically, law enforcement agencies or even private security companies will be able to track where you've been, with whom you associate and what you own with this technology. Imagine a semiretired senior citizen in a rented maroon blazer knowing everything about your day.

Worse, that person could begin to bombard you (or at least your cell phone) with ads or messages.

"What can transmit signals may also be capable of receiving signals from a central computer. Now there's something to think about, eh?" a reader named Max wrote from the United Kingdom. "This biochip project has been in the pipeline for decades. It is now about to bear fruit, to the detriment of all free-thinking people."

A large number of letters also asserted that human RFID tags are a demonic tool. Several pointed out that in the Bible, Revelations 13:16-17 read: "And he causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads: And that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name."

A few anatomical inconsistencies aside, the description is kind of close. On top of this, a beach resort in Spain does in fact use implanted RFID tags as part of a payment system.

"When our society reaches the point that credit cards can easily be faked, look for a push to implant a chip that will take over our trade institutions," reader Jeff Phelps wrote. A large number of letters also asserted that human RFID tags are a demonic tool.

"I can assure you the resistance to this will be very strong from Christians...You will see tens of millions refuse this chip, even when it means great personal suffering will ensue."

To top it off, others noted that even the so-called advantages are minor at best.

"What if I want to go to Wal-Mart? I get a basket, get the stuff I need and literally walk out. Oh! Slow down, beating heart," Bob Cowger of Poteet, Texas, wrote. "Or I go to the local library. Pick what I want from the shelves. Walk out the door with everything being okayed by the computer system because I have MY RFID CHIP implanted. Oh! Joy!"

As for kidnap protection, Cowger predicted that RFID tags will send a signal to police, who will pursue kidnappers, who in turn will toss the victim on the freeway. As a consolation, the paramedics would have known what medicines not to give the deceased victim.

The tenor of the debate indicates a few harsh realities for those promoting this technology, a list that includes Royal Philips Electronics, IBM, Intel, Wal-Mart Stores and the technology ministries of Japan and South Korea.

For one thing, this is going to be one long, ugly, uphill battle. The issue has united people with fairly strong religious beliefs and libertarian privacy advocates. That doesn't happen often.

On the other hand, the relationship between consumers and industry isn't even close to a crisis point. At the turn of the last century, corporate leaders often faced assassination attempts, and striking factory employees sometimes got shot. Try to double-park in front of, or across the street from, an office of J.P. Morgan Chase. Private security officers will immediately shuffle you away, the legacy of a 1920 bombing at the financial institution's New York offices.

Many wrote to say they fear that the tracking technology will be exploited to monitor our private lives--but that won't likely happen. Governments and companies won't have the time or energy to sift through all that data. Even if they do, what will they figure out? That car thieves are among the most loyal consumers of Sunny Delight?

On a gut level, I think that much of the antagonism against the technology is rooted in a general distrust of large institutions. Anyone who has been stuck on hold when phoning for help knows that the standard of customer service continues to plummet.

But in the end, people distrust RFID, I believe, because it forces people to get tagged like a circus bear so that an already overpaid executive can obtain a bonus for cutting costs. If companies want to win the public over to this technology, they are going to have to be the ones jumping through hoops.

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