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Spychips: How Major Corporations and Government Plan to Track Your Every Move with RFID, by Katherine Albrecht and Liz McIntyre

A case can be made for the usefulness of future-gazing as identifying optimists and pessimists: optimists paint with warm, inviting tones, while the pessimists see rainclouds and no silver linings, or at worst, the imminent destruction of humanity. However, some who would at first glance be labeled pessimists are optimists who take it upon themselves to play at Cassandra, hoping to help create a better future. Katherine Albrecht and Liz McIntyre appear to be in this latter category. While their book Spychips: How Major Corporations and Government Plan to Track Your Every Move with RFID has been thrashed by radio-frequency identification (RFID) industry advocates as hyperbole, and criticized by other pro-freedom individuals as scare-mongering and ignoring the market benefits of tracking technology, a more level-headed reading of Spychips shows those criticisms to be largely without merit.

Although I'm a staff member of CASPIAN, the privacy group Albrecht founded and for which McIntyre serves as communications director, I remain stubbornly skeptical about some of the concerns voiced by other staffers. Thus, I approached Spychips: How Major Corporations and Government Plan to Track Your Every Move with RFID not with an Attagirls! attitude, but rather one of Convince me, if you can.

The key to placing Spychips in its proper context is printed right on the book's jacket; but of course that doesn't guarantee that it'll be recognized. Its subtitle states that the book addresses how various entities plan to track objects and individuals using RFID technology. As they write in the first chapter:

We know that a Big Brother vision of the future sounds farfetched. We didn't believe it ourselves until we saw with our own eyes and heard with our own ears companies detailing their mind-boggling plans. We assure you that this seemingly impossible future is on the drawing board, and we promise that by the time you finish this book, you will be convinced, too. (p. 3)

Albrecht and McIntyre accomplished this by doing a lot of digging through both industry and government documents. They found plenty of astonishing information, beginning with the surprising origin of RFID technology—Leon Theremin, he of eponymous music synthesizer fame. Ranging from patent filings to corporate web sites—some of which tellingly revealed deep corporate secrets by simply entering the right search terms—and industry trade shows, the authors distill a wealth of information into a straightforward and disturbing futurescape. Written for a lay audience, Spychips also provides a basic grounding in exactly what RFID chips are and are not (not all tags are necessarily spychips), and current technological capabilities. Along the way, Albrecht and McIntyre reveal the lies behind such claims as RFID being simply an improved bar code, that the technology is limited to short read distances, and that its widespread adoption will bring many benefits to consumers. For example, they report a telling quote from the Auto-ID Center:

[I]n the case of EPC network there are currently no clear benefits [for consumers] by which to balance even the mildest negative....The lack of clear benefits to consumers could present a problem in the real world. (p. 153)

Indeed, the entire chapter Adapt or Die addresses spin after spin, diversionary tactic after diversionary tactic, and effectively rebuts each. Next time you read, for example, that RFID is intended to be used only in a company's supply chain, keep in mind that one industry executive defines supply chain as extending from a product's—and its packaging's— manufacturing facility to the recycling center. (And recall that the USSA government has already considered mandatory chipping of substances deemed particularly dangerous, such as gunpowder and some forms of nitrogen fertilizer.)

Even though I had a good background in RFID and privacy issues, Spychips presented new information and prompted a fair amount of thought. For anyone concerned about the future of privacy, it provides an excellent overview of issues and technology, in a highly readable volume; the endnotes provide URLs that are invaluable for keeping up to date. I highly recommend Spychips to anyone interested in privacy issues, as well as to those who want to take action to prevent Shaun Saunders' dystopic future envisioned in Mallcity14 from becoming reality. For those seeking solid educational material to share with others, Spychips or its Christian-targeted version, titled The Spychips Threat: Why Christians Should Resist RFID and Electronic Surveillance won't disappoint.

Did Albrecht and McIntyre deliver on that promise to convince me? Yes—but I'm a fairly easy target for them. Those who read Spychips with the belief that corporations and governments would never do wrong by their customers and citizens, or with the erroneous idea that the authors are claiming that all those patent filings and forward-looking statements will come about will undoubtedly be tempted to pin a sensationalist tag on the the book. Less narrow-minded skeptics will likely find ideas or arguments that are more persuasive than expected. Throughout Spychips, Albrecht and McIntyre make it clear that they're talking about what could be, based on what already is and what the industry's experts foresee.

So, am I stockpiling necessary tools to become my own seamstress, cobbler, etc. in order to avoid a possible onslaught of chips? No. As chance would have it, after reading Spychips I picked up the other book reviewed this month, which provided an extremely helpful dose of historical perspective. That isn't to say that education and action aren't valuable—they're essential—just that for this sometimes weary activist, the reminder to take a longer and wider view was appreciated.


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More by Katherine Albrecht and Liz McIntyre: CASPIAN and Spychips privacy-oriented web sites; and keep up with news at their Spychips blog.