Monday, November 24, 2008

Techie Trepidation - Part 1

It's exciting and scary at the same time to watch new products and systems sprout up that are related to wireless connectivity and Radio Frequency (RF) technologies. Equally intriguing are the way that these wireless systems interface with legacy networks such as the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN), and use the Internet to connect wireless devices to all manner of communications systems and computer networks.

There were a few stories in the news this past week that drew my interest, not only for the innovations involved but the implications to our ability as citizens to travel and communicate freely without undue restrictions, or having to endure intrusive monitoring that can be used against us in the future.

This isn't a fictional horror story; it's happening in many places, and future possibilities have been discussed in technical forums across the country. Civil liberties organizations such as the ACLU and EFF have expressed concerns, and are calling for regulatory oversight in many cases.

On the other side, there are legitimate public safety and security uses for some of these gadgets. Achieving a balance between these useful purposes and those that infringe upon our freedoms is something that the regulators will need to become adept at.

I get the feeling that the soon-to-be Obama administration will need to develop a keen sensitivity to both sides of the argument when it comes to dealing with these kinds of technological advances. I'll be posting about these over the next week or so, starting with...

RFID: The Mark of the Beast?

Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) chips have been around for a while, and are used extensively in lots of fairly useful applications, from inventory control to security access to highway toll collection.

They are becoming more ubiquitous to everyday lives; this year alone I have acquired three RFID tags, in two ID badges and my passport. Many credit cards that allow the user to just pass their card in front of a reader to pay for an item, with the necessary data being transmitted via a very short range RF link. An RFID-equipped ID badge uses the same low-range transmission to gain access to a secure area, or punch in and out on a time clock. A longer range transmitter allows drivers in many states to zip through a highway toll gate at highway speeds, with the toll being charged to the driver's bank or credit card account.

Significant concerns have been expressed about the proliferation of tagged merchandise, and the ability to track the item after it leaves the store's inventory. The hacker community has figured out ways to receive and record the data coming from an RFID-equipped "smart cards" and ID badges in order to clone these items for illegal purposes.

Now there is an RFID tag now FDA-approved for use in humans and livestock. The company that makes it touts it for infant and elder protection and tracking, as well as patient identification in the health care environment and prisoner tracking in correctional facilities.

As you can imagine, there are pervasive arguments by civil liberties groups and other organizations against the use of RFID in humans, especially without knowledge or legal consent.
The civil liberties implications are somewhat chilling; think of the retinal scanners in Minority Report.

As it happens, there are several Christian organizations who have mounted challenges to RFID technology, equating it to the "mark of the beast" referred to in Revelation 13:16-17, and thus a step toward control of the movement of individuals and their ability to participate in commerce or other activities.

Some Amish farmers in Michigan have filed suit against the USDA objecting to its' RFID tagging program for cattle, as well as state requirements to use the technology that conflict with the religious beliefs of the farmers, many of whom have stated they will stop farming if ordered to use the tags in their livestock.

Focus On the Family has no information at all on this topic; I wonder why.

I believe that private institutions that wish to secure their facilities and monitor access into secure areas have the right to do so. Can an employer monitor employee movement within a facility with this technology? What are an employee's expectations of personal privacy in the workplace?

There is lots of information online about the advantages, innovations, and threats presented by the proliferation of RFID and other technologies that impact all of our daily lives. The best advice is to be mindful of what's out there, ask questions, and express concerns when you feel that your rights are being compromised.

Have a great week.

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