Radio-frequency identification: The shadow of a once-feared technology looms large

In the mid-2000s, RFID drew criticism from privacy experts and became the target of far-right conspiracies

Published March 8, 2020 2:59PM (EDT)


This article originally appeared on the MIT Press Reader.

You'd be forgiven if you haven't heard of radio-frequency identification (RFID), a technology that in the mid-2000s elicited worldwide boycotts from consumer and privacy groups, got tied up in a far-right conspiracy about ObamaCare, and was even feared to be the sign of the Antichrist by some evangelical Christians.

Found in everything from cars moving through electronic tolls to contactless subway cards to tagged items in supply chains, RFID refers to a suite of identification technologies used to wirelessly identify people and things. Domestic pets have RFID tags injected into their bodies so they can be identified. Some humans even inject RFID in their hands to replace access cards or credit cards. In other words, RFID tags are everywhere.

One of the ironies is that the amount of public attention the tags received in the mid-2000s seemed to be inversely proportionate to how many RFID tags were actually in use. For example, most prominent protests occurred during that period and Google searches for RFID peaked around 2007. But at that point the technology was still in its relative infancy, at least in retail and logistics. Now we are at a point where RFID has finally begun to achieve some of its predicted potential, but the public attention has all but disappeared. Outside of the occasional story about China mandating RFID car-tagging or a company offering voluntary RFID injections, the technology rarely enters the public conversation.

But that was not always the case, and looking back at the controversies can be informative for the future of the technology. After all, the aspects of RFID people were concerned about in the mid-2000s have not disappeared.

RFID's history traces back to the early days of radar, but the technology did not begin to get much attention until 1999. That year the term "Internet of Things" was coined at a meeting about using RFID to tag individual items. Within a few years, Walmart announced mandates to tag all their items with RFID and other companies explored similar projects. At one point in the early 2000s, it looked like RFID tags might someday replace barcodes as the primary way items are identified in supply chains and retail settings. However, the industry faced a few problems. For one, tags often didn't work quite as well as hoped. Secondly, it faced scrutiny from a tenacious consumer group called Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering (CASPIAN), who took notice of the technology's spread.

CASPIAN began as a group dedicated to protesting supermarket loyalty cards, but that fight never gained much traction. They then set their sights on RFID and organized worldwide protests of the use of the technology in retail settings. One of the first major strikes CASPIAN organized came in 2003 when they protested an RFID trial project by Benetton. The protests worked and the trial ended. A similar protest targeted Walmart and focused on a "smart shelf" pilot project Walmart rolled out in a Massachusetts store. The "smart shelf," which held RFID-tagged products, would take someone's picture as soon as it detected them removing an item. The protest gained enough traction that Walmart ultimately chose not to deploy the smart shelves. Protests then followed in 2005 and 2006 that focused on Tesco and Levi's use of RFID to tag products.

RFID protests were not confined to retail uses. In 2004, a coalition of 39 privacy groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), and CASPIAN, collaborated on an open letter to oppose the use of RFID in biometric passports. While the efforts did not stop RFID-enabled passports, they were a precursor to later protests that focused on RFID in enhanced driver's licenses.

But concerns extended well past ID cards. People began worrying about the mandatory implantation of RFID in human bodies. At least four U.S. States — California, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin — passed legislation prohibiting the mandatory implantation of RFID chips. Some of these concerns were likely tied to a belief in some Evangelical communities that RFID might be linked to the "Mark of The Beast" foretold in the Book of Revelation, but these concerns were far from exclusive to the United States. In 2006 in Great Britain, the Daily Mail published an article with the following attention-grabbing headline: "Britons 'could be microchipped like dogs in a decade." A 2006 book devoted to warning people about RFID even rose to the top of the Amazon bestseller list. Some people were certainly paying attention.

While the protests didn't stop electronic tolling or RFID-enabled passports, they did possibly slow the deployment of RFID in retail. At the very least, the industry's main trade publication was forced to respond to them and added a regular column on preserving privacy. However, the protests eventually died down for various reasons, and they never fully ramped back up despite RFID being used in more and more settings. In particular, the types of widespread item-level tagging that caused worldwide boycotts in the early 2000s are now finally starting to happen, but with just a small fraction of the public attention they received when they were in their pilot stages.

But even if RFID seems to have survived its controversies and settled as just one of many data-producing infrastructures, that history remains important. After all, something could happen to cause those type of protests to flair-up again. Some battles over things likes electronic tolling or RFID-enabled identification cards are likely lost, at least for the foreseeable future. But the use of RFID to tag items in stores is still in its fairly early stages; a return of public attention about the technology could still significantly harm rollouts.

The irony remains that periods of protests died down before RFID became nearly as widespread as it is now, and there are multiple possible explanations. One reason could be that the personal data landscape now is more complex than it was in the mid-2000s. To some degree, the data an organization could get from RFID tags may seem quaint compared to the massive data profiles assembled based on mobile phone data, browsing history, credit card purchases, and so on.

Another reason may be that the protests scared companies into building more robust privacy practices, which might explain why there haven't been any major RFID-related scandals in retail over the last 10 years. It's impossible to know for sure. But no future for a technology is inevitable.

RFID may have settled into a fairly peaceful status quo as just another infrastructure that shapes our lives in often invisible ways. The organizations deploying it certainly hope so. But there is always the chance something changes and we return to periods of hyper-visibility. Only time will tell if RFID continues its fade into the background or once again becomes a source of protest and public contestation.

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Jordan Frith is the Pearce Professor of Professional Communication at Clemson University and the author of "A Billion Little Pieces: RFID and Infrastructures of Identification"

By Jordan Frith

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