Total Surveillance

Interview: New consumer-tracking technology threatens to make personal privacy a thing of the past.

Katherine Albrecht
By Michael Beckel

December 6, 2005

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Imagine a future in which your every belonging is marked with a unique number identifiable with the swipe of a scanner; where your refrigerator keeps track of its contents; where the location of your car is always pinpoint-able; and where signal-emitting microchips storing personal information are implanted beneath your skin or embedded in your inner organs.

This is the future of radio frequency identification (RFID), a technology whose application has so far been limited largely to supply-chain management (enabling companies, for example, to keep track of the quantity of a given product they have in stock). RFID is set to be applied in a whole range of consumer settings. Already being tested in products as innocuous as shampoo, lip balm, razor blades, and cream cheese, RFID-enabled items are promoted by retailers and marketers as the next revolution in customer convenience. Consumer advocates say this is paving the way for a nightmarish future where personal privacy is a quaint throwback.

Katherine Albrecht has been at the forefront of efforts to sound the alarm about the (already) $10 billion-a-year customer surveillance industry. As the founder and director of the consumer advocacy group Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering (CASPIAN, a nod to C.S. Lewis’ valiant prince), she has uncovered everything from hidden cameras to tracking devices in shopping carts to fake shoppers who follow you around stores.

In her new book, Spychips (co-written with colleague Liz McIntyre and published by Nelson Current), Albrecht, whose work is motivated in part by deeply held Christian beliefs, details how global corporations—and governments—are working to turn RFID into a way of tracking the day-to-day activities of ordinary citizens.

“Regardless of whether your beliefs are progressive or conservative, socially or politically, everybody’s got a reason to not want somebody spying on them,” she says. “Whether you’re afraid that Big Brother is going to take the form of an evil corporation or Big Brother is going to take the form of an evil government or take whatever form, everybody’s got a reason to be concerned.”

Mother Jones recently talked with Albrecht about her consumer activism, the techniques of customer manipulation, and a future where RFID is ubiquitous and personal privacy in short supply.

Mother Jones: What are the greatest threats posed by radio frequency identification technology in particular in the surveillance operations of stores?

Katherine Albrecht: The problem with RFID has to do with the fact that the RFID tags can be so easily hidden into products—things people buy and carry—and the reader devices can be so easily hidden into aspects of the environment. This makes it extremely easy for someone who wants to observe and watch people in these surreptitious ways to do so. We’ve identified three different arenas that the RFID threat could come from: marketers, the government, and criminals.

MJ: What examples have you seen in those three areas?

KA: The Metro, the RFID industry’s showcase retail outlet in Germany, is a good example of a retailer abusing RFID in a surreptitious way. About a year and a half ago, we toured the store for over three hours. The next day I was giving a talk to a group of Germans on privacy and RFID. We had set up a $200 reader device we had bought off the Internet to read the RFID tags off the Pantene shampoo and the Gillette razor products and just on a lark, one of my colleagues held his frequent shopper card up to the reader device and a number appeared on the screen. We found out that they had actually tagged us—and apparently 10,000 other shoppers—at the store, by giving out these cards without being told that they contained RFID tracking devices.

That’s the retailer’s dream: Instead of having to rely on all of this extremely expensive technology to follow you and watch you walk around the store, they can issue you something that you put in your wallet willingly. That way they could figure out how long you stood in front of the bread aisle or they could figure out how long your shopping trip took. They could identify you from the moment you walked in the door. They could identify your value to the store and then treat you differently depending on how profitable you are.

MJ: Companies are actually thinking like that?

KA: Oh, absolutely. I have thousands of pages to back that up. Actually, the whole current retail environment is set up to maximize profit. There are things that have been going on long before RFID became available to retailers that are quite revolting. They’ve got shelf cameras that can zoom in and capture your customer expression as you look at a shelf. They’ve got fake shoppers who can literally follow you around and record what you say to the people you’re shopping with. It’s a $10 billion per year industry. And it’s almost entirely invisible to the average consumer.

MJ: And what can the average consumer do to fight back against this?

KA: The first thing is to become informed about it, because I think very few people have any clue at all that it’s even happening. We detail a lot of this at our NoCards.org website. We’ve protested shopper cards, which are essentially a tool to get you to reveal your purchasing patterns [with the aid of] very sophisticated data mining filters. We recommend a multi-tier approach: educate yourself, educate other people, boycott stores that engage in it, punish them financially by withholding your shopping dollars from them. If the punishment becomes more painful than the desired reward, just like with anything else, companies will pull back from these practices.

MJ: What motivates your advocacy against RFID technology?

KA: What motivates me is an absolute resistance against the idea that we would all just be reduced to being numbers and tagged and tracked like cattle. When I see RFID and I think about a world in which the powers that be—be they corporate or government—can essentially watch, surveil, track, manipulate, and control the people, that’s what motivates me: a desire to see that not happen, to my generation, to my children, to my grandchildren. History is going to judge us based on how we respond to this threat now.

MJ: So, you walk into a store and you purchase something using the store card, or get a product with one of those RFID tag devices. Can you walk through some of the things that are going on from the surveillance perspective?

KA: Let’s say I buy a pair of size 7 women’s Nike running shoes with a credit card. Currently, most major national chains are recording information about what people are buying. In the future, however, my pair of size 7 Nike running shoes will have a unique ID number in an RFID tag embedded in the sole—unless we stop it—so anytime that I step on carpeting or a floor tile that’s been equipped with an RFID reader, it can scan that number and know: “Hey, I’m at the Atlanta courthouse, and I just saw shoe number 308247 step by. Let me cross-reference that in the database. That’s the shoe that was purchased by Katherine Albrecht.”

And shoes are a particularly interesting example to think of in that regard because we don’t trade shoes with other people, for a variety of hygiene and fitness reasons, and most of us tend to wear only a few pairs of shoes regularly. So if you can identify a pair of shoes as belonging to an individual and strategically locate reader devices—put them in the entrance to the airport, the entrance to the courthouse, the entrance to the Wal-Mart store—you can pinpoint the time and place at which a person was seen entering that location. That opens up a whole new horizon of tracking capability to watch people, for marketers and homeland security folks.

MJ: How might the government use this technology for homeland security?

KA: Depending on your politics, you may attend a peace rally or a gun show or a talk by a Muslim cleric or a union meeting or a particular political rally, all of which are protected by the First Amendment. But in the RFID world, federal agents could attend that meeting with a hand-held reader hidden in a backpack, mill around long enough to capture a couple thousand RFID numbers associated with the people at the meeting, upload all of that to a central database, cross-reference it, and figure out everybody who was there.

Also, once you’ve got the private sector wielding all of this technology, they are at liberty to sell that information to the federal government. At that point, the government does not run a foul of Constitution restrictions for essentially spying on its own citizens. There are a lot of private sector-government partnerships in sharing of this information once it’s been gathered, and we anticipate that there will be more and more of that in coming years.

MJ: That seems to require an enormous about of infrastructure and cooperation between these businesses and the database registration.

KA: Pieces of this are already happening. When you make a purchase, records, including your identity and all of the things you bought are collected and recorded. And there are companies that specialize in purchase-record consolidation, such as Information Resources Inc.

MJ: How far away is that future?

KA: That future is going to happen as soon as we allow them to put RFID tags on the things we wear and carry. If you ask the industry, that future is by 2010. When the industry gets RFID tags down to five cents, or preferably a fraction of a penny, at that point, I think we’ll begin to see them appearing on everything, and we’re really looking at a future in which every physical object on earth will be uniquely numbered and trackable in real-time all the time.

MJ: How can RFID tags be used in a consumer responsible way?

KA: This is a great technology if you want to track things from point A to point B. If you run a warehouse and want to keep track of the inventory in the warehouse, RFID is a super way to do it. Conceivably, RFID could have some consumer benefits, but they absolutely pale in comparison to the risks that this technology poses. Industry will tell you, “Won’t it be great when you can waltz through a check out line without having to stop and stand in line?” If the price I have to pay for that is having all of my belongings remotely identifiable and being under the thumb of Big Brother, I would rather stand in line. The trade off just seems so ludicrously lop-sided.

MJ: What alternatives do you suggest for responsible marketers?

KA: I would say let people make their own decisions without trying to manipulate them. The advice I give to professional marketers is “If you can’t tell people you’re doing it, you shouldn’t do it.” I don’t think that the marketers’ challenge is so great right now that they have to resort to these kinds of underhanded tactics to meet their objectives. I want to buy something on the merits of the product.

MJ: What’s your take on the VeriChip Company and Tommy Thompson—former Secretary of Health and Human Services under the Bush administration and now VeriChip Board member—advocating more RFID technology for medical information?

KA: It absolutely scares the heck out of me. In the last six months to a year, this company has really stepped up its efforts to get some powerful players behind it. The fact that people listen to this with a straight face is even more extraordinary to me. You’ve got Tommy Thompson talking about linking medical records with a chip implanted in your arm. You’ve got Senator Joe Biden in the Supreme Court confirmation hearings talking about implant chips to track people with a straight face. It’s unbelievable how quickly we’ve gone from saying “Oh, that’s pet chipping technology, we’ll never put that in people” to people with a straight face suddenly talking about implanting chips into American citizens. Terrifying.

Michael Beckel is an investigative fellow at Mother Jones.

© 2005 The Foundation for National Progress



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