RFID tags & conspiracy theories

For many years I have thought that RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) tags were a very valuable and surprisingly under-used technology. RFID tags are the things that record companies stick to the shrink-wrap of CDs so you can’t take them out of the store without paying.

These days they have a sequence number with more digits stored in them, which means that they can replace barcodes as a much more convenient tracking technology, one which doesn’t depend on the ID actually being visible. And they’re getting cheap enough that they could soon be attached almost everything, meaning that the checkout operators at the supermarket wouldn’t need to turn the box of cereal around looking for the barcode to scan. They would just pass it within a few inches of the reader. If the ID has enough digits, the store could actually know which individual packet of cereal you had bought. And people stocking the shelves could automatically be informed of any items still there which were past their sell-by date, and so on.

Now, in all my years of working with such technologies, it never occurred to me that people might be concerned about RFID tags. But they are, very much so. Because if the shoes you buy at one store have an ID in them, you could conceivably be tracked as you walk in and out of other stores. And people worry about such things. Some people, anyway.

I, on the other hand, have never been a good Conspiracy Theorist, for three reasons. Firstly, because I have nothing really to hide. I actually don’t mind who knows which wines I buy or museums I visit. Secondly, because I’m not naturally paranoid. I prefer to assume the best about people and their intentions for as long as I can. Life isn’t worth living if you’re suspicious all of the time – it’s just too wearing. I’m the kind of guy who has his home telephone number on his web site. It’s been there since the web started, and it’s never been a problem. And lastly, but most importantly, because to use technology in the nefarious ways that some people imagine makes a huge assumptions of (a) competence on the part of large organisations, and (b) of collaboration, often between competing agencies, which I haven’t seen reflected in other aspects of day-to-day life.

So, yes, you can use my mobile phone to track where I am. Yes, you could try to correlate that with my credit card transactions or my cholesterol level. You could record the sequence number of the bank notes issued to me from an ATM and trace them. You could probably tie the websites I visit to the books I go out and buy, if you really thought it was worthwhile, or send me junk mail specifically targetted at me – I’d throw it away just the same.

But do I think that a government that can’t even make the train system work is going to be snooping on me effectively in this way? Do I think that the advertisers who used to hand-deliver leaflets about conservatories and garden sheds to my second-floor apartment are going to brainwash me in subtle ways? That the phone company who can’t get my billing address right after three phone calls are in league with MI5 and/or Disney and passing them useful information about me? Of course not. It would be very arrogant to assume I was sufficiently interesting for anybody to go to all that trouble, even if they were competent to carry it off. I think conspiracy theories are often popular because of an over-inflated sense of self-importance. And because the idea that only we, the minority, know what’s really going on, is a very seductive one, and the basis of many cults around the world.

Of course, the opposite argument is that I can enjoy this carefree lifestyle because my views are broadly in line with those of people around me, including the ones who get elected into government. Others are not so lucky. Would I feel the same if I lived in Zimbabwe? Probably not. So maybe there is something to be said for raising concerns about things like RFID tags, for the benefit of others if not for myself. Because more corrupt governments than my own may also be more efficient.

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser