If you’ve seen or used the E-ZPass automated tollbooth system employed in the Northeast, you’ve already caught a glimpse of an ingenious technology called radio frequency identification, or RFID. If you have an E-ZPass tag mounted on your windshield, you don’t have to fumble around for change and wait for a slow human to take it and put it in a cash register. Instead, the toll is wirelessly deducted from an account into which you’ve already placed money. You get no interest on those funds, but you may get to glide through tollbooths—assuming, of course, that traffic officials have figured out how to assign E-ZPass lanes so that cars and trucks flow faster through them than through normal tollbooths.
The system relies on a small device that transmits information about the driver’s E-ZPass account to a receiver in the tollbooth, which relays the signal to a networked database. E-ZPass is merely the first wave of an RFID transformation of life as we know it. Before long almost everything you come in contact with, from a best-selling novel to a jar of paprika, will come embedded with a tiny chip capable of identifying itself to any receivers that happen to pass by. Think of it as a talking bar code.
The trouble with talking bar codes is that they don’t keep secrets. Some critics and consumer privacy groups see these chips as a disturbing new tool for corporate and government snoops—or thieves—who will be able to track us more precisely through the objects we buy and cart around. The ramifications for RFID have been somewhat contradictory recently, with breakthroughs followed by setbacks. Wal-Mart announced last June that it was asking its top 100 suppliers to include RFID tags on their products by 2005. A month later the company canceled an in-store test with Gillette of an RFID inventory system. Some speculate that Wal-Mart yielded to pressure from consumer groups who complained that tagged items could be used for surveillance of customers.
This moment in the development of RFID chip technology follows a pattern shared by most revolutionary consumer technologies. Evangelists unload fluffy tales of bliss, and naysayers make Orwellian proclamations about the loss of privacy or some long-revered tradition. What usually happens is that the technology is introduced anyway, and the results prove to be far less stark than the naysayers predicted as well as more interesting than the predictions of cheerleaders. In the late 1990s we heard tales that online shopping was going to create a digital paper trail for our transactions that hackers would be able to access, while simultaneously destroying beloved mom-and-pop stores across the country. Fast-forward five years and consumers have happily embraced online shopping, and mom-and-pop stores have flourished thanks to auction sites like eBay or the used-book service of Amazon. Something comparable is likely to happen with RFID: Embedding billions of tiny chips in an entire universe of commercial objects might well end up empowering consumers more than snoops and marketers. It may change the very nature of consumerism.
Radio frequency identification is a marvel of both miniaturization and mass production: a microchip and antenna small and cheap enough to justify planting on a bag of charcoal. The RFID tags used in the E-ZPass system employ a tiny coil to transmit a signal to a receiver. But the latest smart labels use carbon ink as an antenna, which means they can be crumpled or torn and still transmit. If you’ve ever looked inside a laptop, you know that power supplies take up far more room than anything else. RFIDs work without bulky batteries or AC transformers. They are powered by electric fields or magnetic energy emitted by the receivers they broadcast to.
Given the size and relative simplicity of an RFID tag, the message it can transmit isn’t complex, usually an extended version of a serial number. A new Hitachi RFID chip transmits a 128-bit number, much more information than a bar code contains but less than is found in a typical digital photo. Unlike a bar code, which identifies a generic item, an RFID label is designed to specify that, say, the item is not just a green Banana Republic sweater but also one of three green sweaters sold in the Warwick, Rhode Island, outlet.