Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags, a new technology for tracking consumer goods and consumers themselves, are an intriguing though potentially harmful scientific advance. The tags small enough to be embedded in virtually any product, and can even be inserted under the skin. The tags emit a specific radio frequency that, when detected by a reader, transmits data ranging from personal identification of the bearer of the tag, to product information relating to the specific item tagged, to financial information in the case of automated credit cards and traffic toll transponders.
RFID has many potentially positive uses. It has the ability to eliminate the need for long checkout lines, because consumers could simply pick up items in a store and walk out the door, paying for the items through an automatic debit system using RFID readers installed at the exit. RFID already reduces lines at toll bridges and subway stations, and could one day help prevent the loss of luggage at airports.
In spite of the lure of convenience, RFID technology has set off a firestorm of concern among privacy advocates for its potential misuse by corporations and governments to track citizens with Orwellian efficiency. Visions of a world in which powerful private interests and totalitarian governments bent on monitoring our every move have led some to call for strict laws and consumer boycotts in an effort to stem the tide of tyranny.
Still others have noted that many of these potential harms could be visited on society by existing technologies, and admonish critics for paranoid grandstanding. In a speech to the Annual Computers, Freedom and Privacy Conference in 2006, Information Technology and Innovation Foundation President Rob Atkinson presents the case that all the hubbub about RFID is for naught. Atkinson's speech was delivered in response to an opposing address by Katherine Albrecht, founder and director of CASPIAN (Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering). Atkinson's dismisses privacy concerns as unfounded because citizens are smart enough and have enough political clout to prevent abuses.
It is possible, as Katherine warns, that the government could forcibly implant RFID chips in our bodies. But will this happen? In assuming that it might, Katherine assumes that: a) consumers are easily manipulated dupes; b) corporations and governments are all powerful Leviathans; and c) there are no laws governing either.
Atkinson seems to be living in a dream world where the reality of terrorism has not already eroded our privacy rights beyond even the most outlandish nightmares the Founders could have imagined. Atkinson entitles his speech, "There is Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself," an apt description of the truth for the exact opposite meaning he intends to convey. Fear has been the driving force behind the Bush administration's successes in plunging our country into fascism, and it is not out of the question to believe that even greater threats loom that could push the global balance of power to the extreme right.
Private citizens are only protected from corporations and governments so long as they are willing to fight to protect their rights. When even those in power refuse to stand up to the shredding of our constitution, I hold out little hope that the "wisdom of the masses" can save us from destruction. People, for all their intelligence and ingenuity, can be led like lambs to the slaughter given the right circumstances. The specter of terrorism has enabled the government to get away with that which would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. As Adolph Hitler wrote in Mein Kompf,
[T]he principle— which is quite true in itself — that in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily.
In other words, the bigger the lie, the more people will believe it. On the slippery slope toward New Babylon, it is this truth that should keep us awake at night.