Sometimes we're wrong (see: "Missing: All That Post-Grokster Legislation"). But, sometimes we're lucky enough to be right. Unfortunately, in this case, this isn't a good thing for the tech industry. See "Is That a Microchip in Your Pants?". Here we provide perspective and a short history of RFID and the technology's seemingly intractable collisions with privacy advocates. After the very dumb use of RFID chips to track children at a Northern California school, we feared that if the industry didn't manage the political and perception processes well, bad things could happen. They are. As Tom Foremski notes at SiliconValleyWatcher today: "The biggest danger to Silicon Valley is that it could become illegal to innovate here."
Indeed. In what should be a wake-up slap, a normally reasonable California state senator from Palo Alto (yes, you read right) has introduced legislation that would place a moratorium on the use of RFID chips in numerous government applications. Originally, the proposed law called for a ban, but the bill has been watered down a bit since it's original introduction (and after easily passing the state senate 29-7). Still, many in the tech industry feel that the bill will impede innovation and wrongly punishes a technology instead of bad user behavior.
AEA's state government affairs group in Washington and their Sacramento team are leading an ad hoc coalition to fight the legislation (scroll down on this page for the information). The stakes aren't only high in Sacramento, but all watching the legislation are mindful of the dictum: As California goes, so goes the rest of the nation. Moreover, if an RFID bill can pass in tech-friendly California and be sponsored by a legislator from Silicon Valley, why couldn't other states or Congress take the cue?
Enough rhetoric is flying around by established national organizations on RFID that one presumes that we're headed for much bigger and protracted battles on use of the technology. As we mentioned in our RFID round-up, CASPIAN is a hard-core privacy group headed by the articulate and tenacious Katherine Albrecht. She's been a darling of the mainstream media in her efforts to paint RFID use as a direct line to a Orwellian state.
We wonder if Albrecht's darling status will hold after an incredibly enlightening Wired News piece last week that makes one better understand her religious zeal. Literally. Albrecht and many others in her camp believe that RFID chips are the Mark of the Beast. As in Satan. Whoa. From Wired:
(Albrecht) believes that RFID technology may be part of the fulfillment of the Mark of the Beast prophesied in the Book of Revelation....
"The Mark of the Beast, 666: a prophesy from 2000 years ago," says Albrecht, at the beginning of her video, On the Brink of the Mark, produced two years ago. "How many people (know that) technological developments of the last 10 to 20 years could be combining to make the Mark of the Beast a reality, and possibly even in our lifetimes?"
Albrecht's privacy positions on RFID are being supported by many Democrats in the California legislature. And, in a rare case of a tech policy issues splitting partisan lines, many Republicans are against the ban or moratorium for the technology. In Congress, key Republican high-tech groups have also voiced their support for maximizing RFID innovation in its early stages.
Still, causing confusion and heat to the debate, lines will blur. The moderate Democrat Progressive Policy Institute has taken a wise, sensible stand on RFID and the California legislation. PPI's Rob Atkinson wrote in a SJ Merc op-ed:
Because opponents of these technologies use arguments that are so misleading many elected officials are not aware that this technology can be even more secure than most wireless devices. Indeed, anti-technology privacy advocates know that the best way to persuade public officials to ban these technologies is by spreading alarming horror stories.
For example, in trying to enlist support for this ban, the ACLU of Northern California warned that wireless ID devices would enable people to ``steal a person's identity, stalk them, or even kidnap them.''
Yet they never explain exactly how this can happen, because they can't. If a wireless ID device was not encrypted (something that could and should be prohibited by law), a stalker or kidnapper would have to deploy in public a series of powered readers (each costing around $1,000) and hope that the person they are stalking passes within two to four inches of the reader. Sitting in a car outside a person's house is a much easier means. Other arguments are even more outlandish.
While we are putting the brakes on new technologies, other nations, like Japan, are embracing them, in part so their technology companies can dominate the global market. At a time when California can no longer take its leadership in the I.T. economy for granted, it's especially ironic that the state Senate passed such an anti-technology bill.
Conversely, the former Republican Congressman Bob Barr recently wrote in the Orange County Register:
There's this great scene in the Steven Spielberg sci-fi barn burner "Minority Report," in which fugitive-hunter-turned-fugitive Tom Cruise is running through a mall of the future, trying to stay inconspicuous. But, at each store, an animated bulletin board calls out to him by name, hawking various wares.
Although we are to understand that the targeted advertising of the future uses remote scans of our eyeballs to identify individuals as they walk by, technology actually has existed since the 1920s to identify individuals remotely. Only recently, however, has the technology truly entered widespread use.
Known as radio-frequency identification devices, or RFID, the technology poses a number of serious, but subtle, threats to our right to privacy as Americans. Thankfully, the California Legislature in Sacramento is taking these matters seriously. Sen. Joe Simitian introduced legislation in February that would prohibit the state from deploying RFID chips in identification documents and would make the unauthorized remote reading of RFID chips a misdemeanor.
This is a debate that's not going away anytime soon.
The technology industry has shown in past securities litigation fights, encryption battles and immigration skirmishes that when Bad Things Happen, the industry can coalesce and fight off the threat in the name of innovation and its inherent national benefits. In the name of our dark master, history needs to repeat itself soon.