RFID Technology in the U.S.

In late October, the U.S. State Department finalized plans to move forward with the implementation of passports containing controversial Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology. Despite gaining a miniscule 1 percent of the U.S. public's support for the technology, Washington plans to roll—out its RFID program this month by test piloting the technology on government workers who use passports for work—related travel, with all passports RFID—enabled by October 2006.

Simply defined, RFID technology employs devices called 'tags' comprised of an integrated circuit (IC) and antenna which transmits information to a receiver called a 'reader' which is then processed according to the unique needs of the host. The new U.S. passports will contain the name, nationality, date of birth, place of birth, and a digitized photograph of the passport holder.

Moving beyond passports and into the Orwellian realm of intrusive government monitoring that many privacy experts and everyday citizens fear, implantation of human subjects has already begun. Recently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the country's first implantable RFID chips from VeriChip Corp., a subsidiary of Applied Digital Solutions, Inc. According to the FDA, the new chips could save lives by limiting errors in medial treatments. But could the technology be used for other questionable purposes?

In addition to the U.S., other countries are seriously exploring RFID technology. The Mexico City police department recently implanted 170 police officers with a device designed by U.S.—based Verichip to access criminal databases and to track officers in case they were abducted. At Spain's Baja Beach Club, VIP customers are implanted with a Verichip designed tag to confirm their identity to hotel staff. Mary Brown, a security specialist who teaches at Capella University in Minneapolis, is concerned about the use of RFID technology as it relates to humans. 'When it comes to human tracking, I think we are crossing the edge,' she said.

Despite the technology's apparent cost and control benefits for businesses and government, the use of RFID technology raises a plethora of important legal, ethical and privacy questions that as of today remain largely unanswered. For example, what legal rights do individual U.S. citizens have if they believe their privacy has been violated by an overzealous business or government agency? How will an already overburdened court system react to the almost certain influx of RFID—related cases? What government agency will be in charge of collecting and maintaining RFID—related data? As questions surrounding the technology continue to mount, businesses and the U.S. government continue small strides toward full implementation.  

America Adopts RFID Technology

In October, Boeing announced it would use RFID 'smart labels' on a number of maintenance—significant parts of its B—787 Dreamliner airplanes. Lou Mancini, Boeing Commercial Aviation Services' vice president and general manger, stated the technology 'will enhance parts traceability and reduce cycle time to solve in—service problems by improving the accuracy of information exchanged between customers and suppliers.'

At the request of Wal—Mart, Albertson's, Target, Best Buy and other large retailers, the U.S. Postal Service has implemented RFID to track cases and pallets of goods, while United Parcel Service (UPS) has already invested heavily in four RFID companies. Wal—Mart and the Department of Defense (DOD) have even published their own set of guidelines requiring all vendors to place RFID tags on their shipments.

Healthcare providers are using RFID technology on patient wristbands to hold data as a way of locating hospital staff. The FDA has encouraged the use for RFID to tag shipments of Class 1 pharmaceuticals with the hope of one day tagging all pharmaceuticals transported within the continental U.S.

In Michigan, RFID are embedded in tires to ensure compliance with federal transportation laws. In Ohio, California, Illinois and Michigan, prisoners are tracked using RFID wristbands. The state of Virginia has considered using RFID tags on driver's licenses to assist police officers in the criminal look—up process. RFID technology is now being used in animal identification, airline baggage tracking, toll collection and by visually impaired veterans to order prescriptions.

Initially, these seem to be very positive developments, but they lead us to ask the inevitable question — Where do we go from here? 

What Next?

At the request of U.S. businesses and Washington, warehouses and distribution centers are making progress toward RFID adoption, as are public libraries, laundries, and toy manufacturers. Is this a good thing for America? Could what retailers call 'slap and ship' technology become 'slap and track' technology in the United States? Let's hope not, otherwise, we all may want to begin taking Mandarin or Russian language classes at the local community college.  

Frederick W. Stakelbeck Jr. focuses primarily on the impact of China's emerging regional and global strategic influence and relationships upon U.S. national security. He can be reached at fredrick.stakelbeck@verizon.net.

In late October, the U.S. State Department finalized plans to move forward with the implementation of passports containing controversial Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology. Despite gaining a miniscule 1 percent of the U.S. public's support for the technology, Washington plans to roll—out its RFID program this month by test piloting the technology on government workers who use passports for work—related travel, with all passports RFID—enabled by October 2006.

Simply defined, RFID technology employs devices called 'tags' comprised of an integrated circuit (IC) and antenna which transmits information to a receiver called a 'reader' which is then processed according to the unique needs of the host. The new U.S. passports will contain the name, nationality, date of birth, place of birth, and a digitized photograph of the passport holder.

Moving beyond passports and into the Orwellian realm of intrusive government monitoring that many privacy experts and everyday citizens fear, implantation of human subjects has already begun. Recently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the country's first implantable RFID chips from VeriChip Corp., a subsidiary of Applied Digital Solutions, Inc. According to the FDA, the new chips could save lives by limiting errors in medial treatments. But could the technology be used for other questionable purposes?

In addition to the U.S., other countries are seriously exploring RFID technology. The Mexico City police department recently implanted 170 police officers with a device designed by U.S.—based Verichip to access criminal databases and to track officers in case they were abducted. At Spain's Baja Beach Club, VIP customers are implanted with a Verichip designed tag to confirm their identity to hotel staff. Mary Brown, a security specialist who teaches at Capella University in Minneapolis, is concerned about the use of RFID technology as it relates to humans. 'When it comes to human tracking, I think we are crossing the edge,' she said.

Despite the technology's apparent cost and control benefits for businesses and government, the use of RFID technology raises a plethora of important legal, ethical and privacy questions that as of today remain largely unanswered. For example, what legal rights do individual U.S. citizens have if they believe their privacy has been violated by an overzealous business or government agency? How will an already overburdened court system react to the almost certain influx of RFID—related cases? What government agency will be in charge of collecting and maintaining RFID—related data? As questions surrounding the technology continue to mount, businesses and the U.S. government continue small strides toward full implementation.  

America Adopts RFID Technology

In October, Boeing announced it would use RFID 'smart labels' on a number of maintenance—significant parts of its B—787 Dreamliner airplanes. Lou Mancini, Boeing Commercial Aviation Services' vice president and general manger, stated the technology 'will enhance parts traceability and reduce cycle time to solve in—service problems by improving the accuracy of information exchanged between customers and suppliers.'

At the request of Wal—Mart, Albertson's, Target, Best Buy and other large retailers, the U.S. Postal Service has implemented RFID to track cases and pallets of goods, while United Parcel Service (UPS) has already invested heavily in four RFID companies. Wal—Mart and the Department of Defense (DOD) have even published their own set of guidelines requiring all vendors to place RFID tags on their shipments.

Healthcare providers are using RFID technology on patient wristbands to hold data as a way of locating hospital staff. The FDA has encouraged the use for RFID to tag shipments of Class 1 pharmaceuticals with the hope of one day tagging all pharmaceuticals transported within the continental U.S.

In Michigan, RFID are embedded in tires to ensure compliance with federal transportation laws. In Ohio, California, Illinois and Michigan, prisoners are tracked using RFID wristbands. The state of Virginia has considered using RFID tags on driver's licenses to assist police officers in the criminal look—up process. RFID technology is now being used in animal identification, airline baggage tracking, toll collection and by visually impaired veterans to order prescriptions.

Initially, these seem to be very positive developments, but they lead us to ask the inevitable question — Where do we go from here? 

What Next?

At the request of U.S. businesses and Washington, warehouses and distribution centers are making progress toward RFID adoption, as are public libraries, laundries, and toy manufacturers. Is this a good thing for America? Could what retailers call 'slap and ship' technology become 'slap and track' technology in the United States? Let's hope not, otherwise, we all may want to begin taking Mandarin or Russian language classes at the local community college.  

Frederick W. Stakelbeck Jr. focuses primarily on the impact of China's emerging regional and global strategic influence and relationships upon U.S. national security. He can be reached at fredrick.stakelbeck@verizon.net.