"You need not be paranoid to fear RFID," says an op-ed piece this week in the Boston Globe.
A new book called Spychips by Katherine Albrecht and Liz McIntyre is what prompted the fear. What are "spychips"?
That's Albrecht's preferred name for a technology called radio frequency identification technology, or RFID. If you use a Mobil Speedpass to pay for gasoline, you're already using RFID. Your Speedpass contains a microchip and a small antenna that allows it to broadcast information to a receiver. The chip has no power source of its own. Instead, it picks up radio signals from an RFID chip reader, turns these radio waves into electricity, and uses the power to broadcast data to the reader.
Hiawatha Bray, who wrote the op-ed, says:
Somebody needs to sit down and think this through. Dozens of companies and government agencies are planning to use RFID to track nearly every move we make. And although many of the individual applications make sense, what would happen if they were all implemented, without oversight or restraint? We'd then live in a world in which everything we own gossips about us behind our backs.
Should we be panicking about RFID tags? Is it wrong for merchants and manufacturers to know our shopping habits?
Back in the good ol' small towns of yesteryear, everyone knew everyone and it was virtually impossible to keep any secrets about how you lived. Was that so bad?
Today, many of us who live in big cities (I'm in New York) enjoy the feeling of anonymity. With so many people around, hardly anybody knows anyone, and nearly everyone's too busy to pay much attention to what their neighbors might be doing. But by placing too high a value on privacy, we could end up paying a stiff price.
Accountability and privacy are both relatively new inventions; villagers three centuries ago knew little of either. But of the two, accountability is much more precious, and it is hard to enforce when a large swath of public life is shrouded in secrecy.
While new surveillance and data technologies pose vexing challenges, we may be wise to pause and recall what worked for us so far. Reciprocal accountability -- a widely shared power to shine light, even on the mighty -- is the unsung marvel of our age, empowering even eccentrics and minorities to enforce their own freedom. Shall we scrap civilization's best tool -- light -- in favor of a fad of secrecy?
This secrecy fetish -- a deep yearning for anonymity -- is troubling, because it feeds into an increasingly popular distrust of progress and technology.
A whole new world of connections, knowledge, ideas, entertainment, abundance, and freedom is now available with cheap worldwide telecommunication, fast travel, and the Internet. But we seem to want it both ways: all the conveniences of modern society, and a simultaneous withdrawing from social intimacy.
The important thing to remember is that anyone who claims a right to keep something secret is also claiming a right to deny knowledge to others. There is an inherent conflict! Some kind of criterion must be used to adjudicate this tradeoff and most sensible people seem to agree that this criterion should be real or plausible harm... not simply whether or not somebody likes to keep personal data secret.Another troubling and precarious consequence of a citizenry clamoring for secrecy is an increased acceptance of "executive privilege" claims, and the wholesale conversion of formerly accessible records into classified documents.
As we concentrate on building walls of privacy to prevent our personal habits from being known, we also wall ourselves off from seeing others, including those who may have something to hide.
Instead of worrying how much others know about us, we should celebrate -- nay, demand! -- openness and accountability.
Some final thoughts from David Brin:
According to some champions of liberty, shields of secrecy will put common folk on even ground with the mighty. Privacy must be defined by rules or tools that enhance concealment. One wing of this movement would create Euro-style privacy commissions, pass a myriad laws and dispatch clerks to police what may be known by doctors, corporations, and ultimately individuals. Another wing of Strong Privacy prefers libertarian techno-fixes -- empowering individuals with encryption and cybernetic anonymity. Both wings claim we must build high walls to safeguard every private garden, each sanctum of the mind.
This widespread modern myth has intuitive appeal. And I can only reply that it's been tried, without even one example of a commonwealth based on this principle that thrived.
There is a better way -- a method largely responsible for this renaissance we're living in. Instead of trying to blind the mighty -- a futile goal, if ever there was one -- we have emphasized the power of openness, giving free citizens knowledge and unprecedented ability to hold elites accountable. Every day, we prove it works, rambunctiously demanding to know, rather than trying to stop others from knowing.
Advanced nanotechnology could enable unprecedented concentrations of power. To safeguard our lives, our freedom, and our prosperity, we must place a very high priority on transparency and accountability.