Next-gen barcodes track your every move

March 1, 2004

Who cares about barcodes? You see them everywhere, meaningless little black and white lines that quietly say “I’m a can of Vanilla Coke” but only when they’re beeped into the scanner at Save On Foods. Big deal.

Now imagine that those infinitely wise scientists who dictate our lives invent a bar code that doesn’t need to be waved over a scanner. A ID tiny chip, only 1/3 of a millimetre long, that shouts at the top of its lungs, “I’m can of Vanilla Coke #2903719!” This way, it can be beeped in instantly, from a distance, anywhere, anytime.

Kinda cool, you might think. Stock boys can beep in the direction of a new shipment and be told just how many cans are in there. Automated smart shelves could tell when more Coke needs to be put out. The beepers on the shelves can also notice you taking your can off the shelf, and if you try to leave without checking out, the beepers at the door will notice you have can of Vanilla Coke #2903719 and haven’t paid for it.

The thing that’s kind of scary is that this isn’t a technology from ten years in the future; it’s currently being put into action around the world. The reality is, stores love it. They don’t need to count or manually track anything; it just all beeps itself in. It’ll mean less costs for them, and more profits. The original barcodes were invented in the 1950s, but were never used until 1984, when Wal-Mart decided its top 100 suppliers had to use them. Within 5 years they were the standard everywhere. This June, Wal-Mart announced a similar plan with these RFID chips: if a major supplier isn’t using them by 2005, they lose Wal-Mart’s business.

So what does this all mean? Your time to buy things with anonymity is disappearing. The more data people can collect, the more they will. It won’t be too long before the supermarket’s database knows not only who you are when you walk in the door, but what cereal you prefer and how often you buy condoms (including whether or not they’re ribbed.) You could then go to the same supermarket chain in Ontario and they’d know your condom preference too. The question is, do we want this information to be easily trackable?

The gas station and border crossing “fast pass” cards already use these RFID chips. Michelin is starting to incorporate RFID tags into the 800 000 tires they make every day, planning to associate the tires’ ID numbers with the car’s VIN numbers, allowing police to easily track stolen cars. The US Military is tracking all its equipment this way, and is incorporating these tags into military ID cards. Star City Casino in Sydney, Australia recently placed 80 000 of these tags in its employees’ uniforms to stop theft. As much as we all know computers are always a secure way of storing data, would you really be surprised if hackers got access to information that could be easily misused?

The European Mint is looking into getting these tags into every paper Euro dollar printed, which would contain the serial number and the amount of the bill. Not only would this prevent counterfeit, it would allow banks to count vast piles of cash in seconds. This also allows the government to track the flow of large (or even small) sums of cash, making even cash payments no longer anonymous. Of course we’ll just hope thieves don’t figure out how to read the bills. How easy would it be to discreetly beep each person’s wallet as they walk by, looking for someone with a lot of cash on them?

If tracking items is so easy, why not put these tags directly into people? A company in the States has developed a tag that goes under the skin and can still be read from a distance. A great way to keep children and seniors safe, they say. The US prison system is looking into getting such a tag injected into each inmate, allowing their movement around the facilities to be automatically monitored. Of course these chips would stay in after they were released. Military personnel can look forward to this as well. The reality of it is, once almost everybody is tagged, people will expect you to be tagged. The bank will beep your tag to verify it’s you, and if you don’t have one, then you’ll have to register for one.

Things get less cool when you realize that anything that has one of these chips (called Radio Frequency ID chips, or RFID) can be tracked anywhere. They’re dumb: anything that wants the information in them can get it. Once they’re imbedded in driver’s licenses, passports, and other things you carry with you all the time, the police, the mob, the government, or anybody with power and some money could use them to track people down. Just place some automatic chip readers around Abbotsford, and it would be easy for the cops to go and arrest anybody who fits a general description who happened to be in a particular neighbourhood around the time of a murder. They wouldn’t even need to find you at home; they could just go pick you up wherever you happened to be.

Now it gets even scarier: the Bush Administration is putting money into researching how these ID tags can be used to “stop terrorism”, which we all know can sometimes mean stopping anyone who doesn’t like the Bush Administration.

Am I the only one who found the world of Minority Report creepy? A world where you walk into the GAP and the hologram salesperson greets you by name and asks how your khakis are working for you? A world where your every move is known by those in power, even if those in power are the bad guys? I truly hope not.

© Allen Pike. See also Twitter and Steamclock.