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Children and RFID Systems

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  • California Considers Prohibition on RFIDs in State ID Cards. "Tag and Track" devices, known as RFIDs (Radio Frequency Identification tags), are being considered for use in government documents. California State Senator Joe Simitian has introduced "The Identity Information Protection Act" which would prohibit the inclusion of RFIDs that can be read remotely without the person's knowledge in state identity documents, such as driver's licenses, student identification badges, and medical cards. See the RFID Action Page. For general information, see EPIC's pages on RFID and Children and RFID Systems. (Apr. 8, 2005)
  • California School Drops RFID Tracking Program. Brittan Elementary School in Sutter, CA, has abandoned an experimental RFID program after InCom, the company which developed the technology, pulled out of its agreement with the school. Last week, EPIC, along with the Electronic Frontier Foundation and ACLU-Northern California, urged the Brittan School Board in a joint letter (pdf) to terminate the program that used mandatory ID badges to track children's movements in and around the school with RFID technology. The letter argued that the program breached children's right to privacy and dignity by treating them like cattle or pieces of inventory. See the press release. (Feb. 16, 2005)
  • EPIC Urges to Stop RFID-Tracking Scheme for School Children. EPIC, along with EFF and the ACLU-Northern California, urged the Brittan School Board in a joint letter to terminate an experimental program using mandatory ID badges tracking children's movements in and around the school with RFID technology. The letter (pdf) argues that the program breaches children's right to privacy and dignity as human beings by treating them like cattle or a piece of inventory, and that the RFID badges jeopardize the safety and security of students by broadcasting their identity and location information to anyone with a chip reader. (Feb. 8, 2005)

Brittan School's RFID-tagging of children

In the summer of 2004 and again in January 2005 until February 16, students at the Brittan School District, Northern California, were forced to wear RFID-enabled ID badges as part of an "RFID test" done with the support of a company developing and manufacturing attendance reporting and security systems (Incom Corporation). The badges were issued without the parents' consent, and allowed the school to track and maintain records of students' movements on campus. Public schools start using RFID technology across the nation to turn school grounds into broad surveillance areas. EPIC is working with the ACLU of Northern California and EFF to fight the school's invasion into children's privacy and the breach to their right to dignity, and raise public awareness.



Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) is a type of automatic identification system. The purpose of an RFID system is to enable data to be transmitted by a portable device, called a tag, which is read by an RFID reader and processed according to the needs of a particular application. The data transmitted by the tag may provide identification or location information, or specifics about the product tagged, such as price, color, date of purchase, etc. The use of RFID in tracking and access applications first appeared during the 1980s. RFID quickly gained attention because of its ability to track moving objects. As the technology is refined, more pervasive-and invasive-uses for RFID tags are in the works.

In a typical RFID system, individual objects are equipped with a small, inexpensive tag which contains a transponder with a digital memory chip that is given a unique electronic product code. The interrogator, an antenna packaged with a transceiver and decoder, emits a signal activating the RFID tag so it can read and write data to it. When an RFID tag passes through the electromagnetic zone, it detects the reader's activation signal. The reader decodes the data encoded in the tag's integrated circuit (silicon chip) and the data is passed to the host computer for processing.

RFID tags come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Some tags are easy to spot, such as the hard plastic anti-theft tags attached to merchandise in stores. Animal tracking tags which are implanted beneath the skin of family pets or endangered species are no bigger than a small section of pencil lead. Even smaller tags have been developed to be embedded within the fibers of a national currency.

While barcodes have historically been the primary means of tracking products, RFID systems are rapidly becoming the preferred technology for keeping tabs on people, pets, products, and even vehicles. One reason for this is because the read/write capability of an active RFID system enables the use of interactive applications. Also, the tags can be read from a distance and through a variety of substances such as snow, fog, ice, or paint, where barcodes have proved useless.

Currently, RFID tags are not widely used in consumer products because the price of the tags is still prohibitively expensive. However, as companies push for enhanced means of tracking products and profiling consumers, the increased demand and production of RFID technologies will drive down prices. Already, developments in RFID technology are yielding systems with larger memory capacities, wider reading ranges, and faster processing. In response, the market for RFID tags is growing explosively, projected to reach $10 billion annually within the decade.

What You Can Do to Protect Your Children's Privacy

While corporate giants tout the merits of RFID technology, civil liberties advocates point out that the ability to track people, products, vehicles, and even currency would create an Orwellian world where law enforcement officials and nosy retailers could read the contents of a handbag-perhaps without a person's knowledge-simply by installing RFID readers nearby. Such a fear is not unfounded. Currently, some RFID readers have the capacity to read data transmitted by many different RFID tag. This means that if a person enters a store carrying several RFID tags-for example, in articles of clothing or cards carried in a wallet-one RFID reader can read the data emitted by all of the tags, and not simply the signal relayed by in-store products. This capacity enables retailers with RFID readers to compile a more complete profile of shoppers than would be possible by simply scanning the bar codes of products a consumer purchases.

Even the RFID industry itself is aware of the threat to privacy posed by the development and installation of tags in commonplace items. Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering (CASPIAN) recently located internal public relations documents which detail how RFID developers plan to offset public opposition to the technology. The documents, prepared by Fleishman-Hillard, a communications consultancy, suggest that RFID industry leaders are planning a public relations campaign designed to counter opposition to the pervasive use of RFID technology. The documents detailing how such a campaign may unfold begin by outlining obstacles that hinder the widespread implementation of RFID technology. These obstacles include the facts that: "consumers are very concerned about invasions of their privacy," are "cynical about the government and private sector's commitment to protecting privacy," and are "inclined to believe that businesses have little incentive to protect consumers' personal information." In response, the documents cite the need for the development of a proactive plan that would "neutralize opposition" and "mitigate possible public backlash." One method of doing so suggested by the documents is through the creation of a Privacy Advisory Council made up of "well known, credible, and credentialed experts" who may be "potentially adversarial advocates." The documents cite EPIC as an example of such a potential council member. Although EPIC has been approached by others on this issue, EPIC will not serve on such a council or consult for other companies.

The proposed uses of RFID tags pose exponentially greater risks to personal privacy. Many technology experts predict the development of a seamless network of millions of RFID receivers strategically placed around the globe in airports, seaports, highways, distribution centers, warehouses, retail stores, and consumers' homes, all of which are constantly reading, processing, and evaluating consumers behaviors and purchases. In addition to undermining a consumer's ability to enjoy a lifestyle in relative anonymity, critics of the technology counter that the information gathered by RFID readers could be obtained by the government for surveillance or monitoring the activities of citizens, or even misused by hackers and criminals. Even more, the ever-expanding use of RFID chips would leave no aspect of life safe from the prying eyes of retail and corporate giants. Chips integrated into commonplace products such as floor tiles, shelf paper, cabinets, appliance, exercise equipment, and grocery and packaged products would allow even our most intimate activities to be monitored.

Opponents of RFID tags have proposed measures to side-step the chips' relentless information-gathering, ranging from disabling the tags by crushing or puncturing them, to simply boycotting the products of companies which use or plan to implement RFID technology. One way to destroy the tags is to microwave them for several seconds. Another method is to obstruct the information gathered by RFID readers by using blocker tags. When carried by a consumer, blocker tags impair readers by simulating many ordinary RFID tags simultaneously. Blocker tags can also block selectively by simulating only designated ID codes, such as those issued by a particular manufacturer.

In an attempt to soothe consumers' fears, companies have argued that most items tagged with RFID chips can't be tracked beyond an operating distance of about five feet. However, while this may be true today, industry experts say plans for building far more sensitive RFID signal receivers are in the works.

As RFID technology becomes more advanced, consumers may ultimately lose all ability to evade products implanted with chips. Corning researchers have developed tiny, barcoded beads that are invisible to the human eye. The microscopic beads can be embedded in inks to tag currency and other documents, and even attached to DNA molecules. They can also be added to substances like automobile paint, explosives, or other products that law enforcement officers or retailers have a strong interest in tracking. Researchers say the technology could be ready for commercial use in three to six years.



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