Sunday, July 17, 2005

imho Don’t think RFID-tagging of humans is inevitable or desirable


A kind reader of this blog e-mailed to ask my opinion on the issue of whether RFID-tagging of human beings (such as prisoners or paroled sex offenders) was an inevitability, or was feasible/desirable and so forth. Here is the gist of my response to his stimulating discussion:

As regarding the possibility of embedding RFID tags in human beings, that's something people can choose to do or not do to themselves. Just another type of prosthetic. Or another type of piercing. Or tattoo. Or cosmetic. Or wardrobe. Or accessory. Or crutch. Ever since humans emerged as self-conscious beings, we've been modifying/extending/enhancing our god(s)-given endowments in all of these ways. But that should purely be left to individual choice. Nobody should be compelled by another--or by law/society--to deface or modify their body in any way. Similarly, RFID is a credential that someone may choose to embed in their being. It's not inevitable that society will some day force us all to do so. Has any society (other than, say, Nazi Germany) ever compelled people to tattoo an identifier into their skin? And that was clearly regarded as an inhuman thing to do.

Would it make sense to "RFID-tattoo" some subset of our society--say, prisoners, or paroled sex offenders--so as to monitor/control their movements? Would the perceived public danger from these individuals outweigh the abhorrence we feel at branding human beings in this way? Open questions.

Yes, anything's possible. But I don't see it as likely anywhere/anytime soon. Society has other means--such as public surveillance cameras--to track these suspect individuals, and also to track others who we don't yet suspect (such as the London subway cameras that were used after the fact to track down the suspected bombers). Public cameras capture a broad range of qualitative relevant to baddies, known and unknown, and seem like society's preferred control mechanism. For good and bad.

Besides, RFID-tagging of humans is unnecessary once everybody has a cellphone and can have their whereabouts tracked through that RF device. That day is fast coming. Yeah, the cellphone leash isn't pierced into your flesh, hence doesn't offer the strong authentication of RFID-tagging. But, in effect, it's just as good a beacon of your location/activities as any RFID tag. And the authorities can tap into your voice and data communications emanating from and to that device, which makes it a richer environment within which they can harvest privacy-sensitive identity-targeted info on people.

DNA fingerprinting is also becoming one of society's main tools for compiling a composite portrait of people's activities---especially those that don't involve any IT-based interaction.

So, between public surveillance cameras, cellphones/Blackberries/etc, and DNA fingerprinting (and wiretapping, subpoenas, etc.), the authorities already have considerable resources for strongly tracking people's every movement. All of those surveillance techniques have the advantage, from authorities' point of view, of being conducted in the background, undetectable by suspects. Mandatory RFID-tagging, by contrast, would be an overt fascistic inhuman approach that would arouse fierce resistance everywhere.

It just wouldn't sail in the real world. Or, more to the point, I hope it doesn’t sail. I hope it sinks into the abyss of dystopic horror scenarios that never come to pass. But further inroads on our privacy from various technologies/techniques are well-nigh inevitable.