Thursday, January 11, 2007

I Spend, Therefore I'm Spied Upon?

The 17th-century philosopher René Descartes' most famous dictum was, "I think, therefore I am." While Descartes was a military man for a time, he lived long before an age when simply carrying money around in your pocket made you vulnerable to espionage. A recent Associated Press report carried in the San Francisco Examiner online edition describes "spy coins" that have been found on contractors doing classified U. S. government business in Canada. According to the report, these Canadian coins carried tiny radio transmitters that could conceivably have been used to track the contractors' movements. No details were given about who the contractors were, what work they were doing, or even what denomination of coin was used. One of the security experts consulted by the reporter said that the technique didn't seem to make a lot of sense, because there is nothing to keep a person from spending a spy coin almost as soon as he or she receives it. My guess is it's a scheme cooked up by North Korea, whose counterfeiting activities are already well-known. It would be consistent with that country's old-style cold-war mentality to cook up something so outlandish that nobody would think of it, even if it didn't have a great chance of producing useful results.

Unless you do classified work for the U. S. and travel to Canada a lot, this news probably won't make you look more closely at the change you get at your next visit to the coffee shop. But it brings up a much broader issue, which is the fact that in the near future, devices very much like the Canadian spy coins will appear in millions of consumer products. Radio-frequency identification tags (abbreviated "RFID") is a technology that has been in the works for decades, and is poised to go public in a big way in the next few years. You have probably heard of systems like the New York State Thruway's "E-Z Pass," which uses an RFID device in one's car and allows the driver to pass through a toll booth without stopping. The RFID system notes the time and place and sends a bill at the end of the month.

RFID applications like that have no apparent ethical downsides, unless maybe somebody steals your E-Z Pass. Notifying the authorities of the theft will allow them to disable that particular unit, and even nab the thief if he happens to be stupid enough to try and use it himself. But other applications of RFID, including their use as a replacement for bar-code labels on consumer products, can get into some ethical gray areas pretty quickly.

The basic RFID technology works by means of a two-way exchange of information through radio waves between the tag and another transceiver. In a grocery store, for example, RFID may eventually allow you to simply roll your supermarket cart through a kind of portal similar to the ones used at airport screening checkpoints, and a few seconds later the receipt would come out of the cash register ready for payment. Like many developments in retail-related technology, this will be good news for consumers and not so good news for the checkout people, who will now simply pack things into bags and take payment. But that trend has already started with the hands-off do-it-yourself checkout stations at many supermarkets and hardware stores.

What is of more concern is the possibility of a personal RFID tag. This might easily be built into your driver's license, for example, or anything else you typically carry with you at all times. Depending on who is authorized to access it and the availability and cost of the necessary technology, a personal RFID tag would enable whoever runs the system to know where you are, anytime you were in range of a transceiver. And eventually, that could be a lot of places. Already in this country, and especially in Great Britain, we've gotten used to the ubiquitous security cameras that monitor our every move in many public and private places. But a person's identity, Social Security number, and other vital information are not immediately available simply from one's image on a security camera, so the privacy threat from that technology is not as extensive as it is from the potential abuse of a personal RFID tag.

Of course, any time you use a credit or debit card, your financial institution has a near-real-time bit of information about your location and activities, and occasionally this data becomes of interest to law enforcement authorities, or becomes a means of identity theft. We can expect that if personal RFID tags become either necessary or desirable, that someone somehow will find a way to hack the system. One can imagine a hacker-stalker who uses his ill-gotten data to hound his victim.

Developers of RFID systems are aware of at least some of these problems, but the technology deserves close scrutiny as it makes its way into increasing numbers of stores, warehouses, and other public and private locations. In the meantime, at least now you know what RFID means the next time you see it in print. And don't take any Canadian spy coins.

Sources: The article on Canadian spy coins was carried by the San Francisco Examiner on Jan. 11, 2007 at

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