It’s been a while since I wrote a post here. However, recently I have found myself looking at a few online discussions about RFID (a technology for the wireless transmission of a unique identifying code) and other near-field tracking technology. In reading through the vast array of colourful comments, it made me realize how my own perceptions have changed over the last few years since I started this blog. I remember being more than a little ‘nervous’ to put it mildly of this new tech and its implications. But like a wild horse, it had to be tamed.
For those who know and followed my own journey for a while, when I began compiling my findings in my master’s thesis about ‘RFID and advertising’, I was perturbed to find my own views somewhat changing and adapting as I started to dig a little deeper beyond the media sensationalism of ‘SpyChips’. So I thought it was high time to bring an update and share my own current views to help others come to terms with all these changes that are once again hitting media, as it’s always been my pleasure to share and help others along the same journey to make more informed – not just reactive – decisions.
In all my travels in my previous role as Global Head of Innovation for a leading ad tech company, I’ve been fortunate to see first-hand certain tech in use around the world as well as being exposed to some many new ground-breaking ideas being proposed. I’ve walked around Tokyo where RFID payments from mobiles are linked to McDonald’s ordering systems and public transportation and opened doors and how smooth and fast and easy it is – not having to carry cash or keys in your pocket. I’ve played with the RIFD screens at Cannes advertising festival and tracked people as they moved through the halls and pushed information to them and received useful info to my phone rather than handing them a business card or bags full of brochures to carry around… because I don’t want to sit on the sidelines and fear the unknown. I want to see both sides, I need to understand both sides.
Some amazing concepts to ease and simplify our lives in ways we could only dream of. Minority Report showed “ads personally targeted to individuals on instore screens” and something exciting but uncomfortable is in our future. But imagine standing in front of a smart mirror in a store – or maybe in front of your Smart TV – and the dress you are wearing in the mirror (or TV) changes colour by swiping your hand without needing to get changed again. Or perhaps it recommends the correct accessories to match…? Just seeing the stuff I want on my TV and not all those crazy tampon ads that I really hate being expose to. Show me the car I like if I have to see something, let me spin it around, open the door, play with it… That’s just some of the proposed ideas of “tagged” items through a mirror or screen “reader” and most people I show ideas like this to simply love the concepts and can’t wait for it to be mainstream. It was my role to evaluate the demand and concerns around any such new proposals. Intelligence and ease of use is fine, but targeting afterwards is always an uneasy pill to swallow – unless I have expressly requested a follow up. And so the question of why cant I embrace technology ‘anonymously’ as a consumer is always the challenge when often marketers wish for the opposite through data collection.
When I started discussing near field tracking and targeting of humans here several years ago, it was more often than not dismissed as crazy paranoia, science-fiction and questions over conspiracy theory. However even by 2005, RFID had already gained much traction in the media as marketers hastened to find the holy grail of understanding consumer choices and after 9/11 homeland security needed a better way to find the terrorists hiding amongst us. Yet time has shown that consumer reaction will not tolerate a blanket wash of enforced tracking and so now even website cookies have to be opt in and after noise reached the ears of politicians. Technology that assisted in moving data from one page to the next to stop me having to type everything in ‘again’ on each page of a shopping cart, was being used to target and track people ‘without explicit consent’. Equally, social media isn’t an open forum to say what you will and organize attacks without recompense, especially as every day citizens are usually the ones who are targeted in riotous attacks, now often orchestrated through social media networks. And so we cannot either enforce or over estimate human reactions, however unjustified and uninformed we may feel either camp of proponents or end-users feel. Technological progress must be openly debated and tempered by cultural acceptance – and often only after a terrible incident highlights the pitfalls.
So I think it is fair to say, most reactions I have found over the last few years when discussing tracking technology sit between two
[extreme] schools of thought; the dismissive reaction of ‘who cares, I have nothing to hide’ and the apocalyptic, dystopian fear of being ensnared like a prisoner with no rights as one is forced to be given a ‘mark of the beast’. Most of us, I would hasten a guess, fall somewhere comfortably between the two.
Let me give you a couple of recent examples to highlight the media and those reactions.
The article discusses Andrea Hernandez who is a junior student in San Antonio whose school required all pupils to wear Radio Frequency ID badges, to keep track of attendance and whereabouts, continually. Her stance to not wear the ID card for privacy and religious reasons caused her to be suspended and ended up in a court case. She lost.
A look at some Facebook reactions to the posting range from;
“I heard about that and good for her!!!! I heard that the “tracker” is still active even out of the school!!! Pretty weird and I do not like it either!!!!! Period!!! My youngest is in high school and I took his too!!!! We do not need to be walking GPSs or need to be tracked down.”
“Nice one well done to her for standing up to the ‘new world order’ regime.”
“I give her an A+ for that ‘mark of the beast’ excuse, I find it stupid but funny!”
“Ever watched Nikita…. the Kill-Chips??!?!?”
“WTF are people talking about? Every human is tagged by Mother Nature herself from the very beginning… Tracking is related to context and purpose. A diver would like to track himself inside an underwater passage. A miner too. Or a police officer inside an unknown building. Or a vehicle fleet owner. Or a farmer. Tracking has it’s place in today societies…”
Both sides of the argument have their merits it would seem. And yet my personal favourites:
“A system that keeps tabs on the location of all it’s patrons and punishes those who refuse to obey… What’s the worst that could happen?!”
“George Orwell would be spinning in his grave.”
So at Lollapalooza music festival in Chicago’s Grant Park, on Friday August 2nd 2013, hundreds of thousands of alternative music fans of all ages lined up to willingly be tracked with RFID micro-chips hidden within “non-removable wristbands” that were provided by organizers for attendees to gain entrance to the weekend long event. The reason given was around protection in light of terrorist attacks.
Now both of these are recent scenarios in which only “one” person was prepared to stand-up against an enforced system, despite the known and publicized security failings of RFID. Many people “laugh” at Andrea’s plight and dismiss her as some kind of religious nut, whilst the majority willingly goes along with it, especially if they want to see their favorite band. The reality is that just like you can hack someone’s wi-fi or send down viruses to computers or clone credit cards, RFID is no more secure than any other tech. Imagine this tech in the hands of a pedophile or a rapist or child kidnapper looking to attack to order against their own preferences for age, gender, hair and eye colour… and knowing the exact moment when an individual was away from the crowd (shown on a screen in their hand) and then moves in for the attack just like any other predator picking off their prey. And so whatever benefits for school attendance are justified, schools equally need to ensure adequate protection is assured to parents and children alike. We cannot afford to be naïve in today’s scenario about technology – especially in a far from perfect world.
Innovation in any incarnation solves one problem and generally creates another, which leads the next developer and generation improve on their predecessor. That’s called progress, and we never stand still and never will. It comes from knowing there are always two-sides to any innovation, and it is the ethical and moral responsibility of any developer to ensure sufficient safeguards are in place and not merely smoke-and-mirrors marketing to the masses and downplay potential problems for business reasons, balanced with not throwing out the ‘baby with the bathwater’ through an intrinsic fear of change. So the question remains ‘do the masses not know, or simply not care?’
Now consider Facebook or Mobile phones or credit cards. What exactly does RIFD technology possess that the others don’t? People against “tagging” individuals for fear of government control highlight and point the finger at “one” tech and often overlook they are fully embracing and utilizing the others. All RFID is, is a microchip with a wireless signal. Some are linked to sensors to monitor various activities. Your average smart phone has far more detailed and pervasive understanding of you and your habits through sensors and apps then merely a tracking chip, as does your credit card. Computers that were the size of rooms in the sixties became desktops and portables in the eighties and nineties, and now your average smart phone is more powerful and personal today than all of those were back then. That’s in just 50 years. Now, your mobile rarely leaves your sight. You go to the bathroom, you take it with you to check the news and Facebook. You go shopping and that “thing” you are looking at buying, you now check prices and reviews of before you hand-over your hard earned cash. We overlook the “tracking” component as the desire for instant information and ‘getting a good deal’ presides over the fear of someone knowing something about me or my habits. That photo you take and upload to Facebook or Twitter to show your friends…
Smartphone pictures pose privacy risks
Pictures you’ve e-mailed or uploaded from your smartphone leak information that can threaten your safety or that of your children, as the meta-data attached to the photo have GPS location, accurate time… and in some cases, even facial recognition.
That little news article has had over 20 million views on YouTube since it was posted back in 2010.
Or what about Mobile Locate, the UK’s leading mobile phone tracking company with over 100,000 registered users, just one of many such companies globally that allows any person to monitor their employees or family members whereabouts in real-time via their mobile handset for a few quid a month…
Yes that signal bar on your phone which shows you when you have a good or bad signal, is your proximity to a phone mast. In other words, your precise location – which in turn can be read to know your exact whereabouts at any given moment in time. And don’t give me the “well I can turn the phone off” response. Didn’t you know that already by 2004, in light of the 9/11 attacks, NSA officers were able to find people via their cell phones even when powered down and were used to find known terrorists in Iraq. Yes, that battery inside the phone is continually powering stuff inside that can be read by others. And just try removing a battery from your iPhone…
There are over 6 billion mobile handsets in the world right now. And yes government agencies are using them to track people. So what is all this fear of RFID chips that precious few have in their possession?!
Ah, but the bible says “they were forced to be given a mark (an identification) so they couldn’t buy or sell without it.” (Revelation 13: 16-18).
Ok, so 25 years ago someone highlighted that the three vertical bars on a UPC – a barcode – where the same shape and size as a number six. Therefore, 6-6-6 is intrinsic to all barcodes. Check it out. It is actually true… Well, that is it is only true in one of the four variations of barcodes for a start. Second, the barcode systems are one of “grouped” and not “individual” product codes. And thirdly, did we all actually get tattooed with barcodes in the last 25 years?!
RFID is a “unique identifier” of a specific tagged item therefore I can track every individual item, product, animal or human. But every computer or phone has an individual MAC address on a network. Every car has a unique number plate. Your national insurance number, your passport, your house address, your phone number or bank account. There is literally dozens of personal identifiers that “could” be used against you – including your own fingerprints and DNA – and not just be snooping governments, but criminals wishing to syphon your cash or mimic your identity.
When barcodes were brought in, some people feared the tech because of the “666” overlap. They were so wrapped up in the fear of the tech they couldn’t even imagine RFID chips!! In twenty years from now, the powerful sensors of motion, location, biometrics, temperature, light and countless other sensors will be there not just in your mobile handset, but contained within a technology towards the size of a blood cell, not the size of a grain of rice like today’s RFID.
How often to do you change your TV let alone your cell phone – once every ten years? Once every year? Technology is generally updated on high streets every three to six months. That’s how fast change happens. I remember a mobile when all it was ‘was’ a phone. I remember when buttons came on phones instead of dials. I remember walking to a phonebox to make a private call away from my own parents. (ah the irony, a private call in a public phone booth!) So why on earth would I want to use a tech today to tag you from birth to death – seventy years on average – that I know is going to be useless and redundant within a few years?! So, if such a system was to come into place, if I was so inclined to “tag” you, I want something a lot smaller and more pervasive that a freaking RFID chip, and something that can continually be updated and improved at regular intervals. I want something so small I can hide in your food, or in the antidote for that cancer we will cure… do you get me? The tech you fear is still to come.
People often tell me they will refuse to change, refuse to accept some kind of new technology when it comes out. They are happy with what they have. Really? You could. But you won’t. And there in lies the irony. You are already duped white mouse in the college lab and can’t live without ‘that’ thing… your refrigerator, your car, your TV, your new cool shiny gadget, your baby monitor, your Internet that lets you read this… Yes I know people who don’t have a TV. Or a car. But they have a whole load of other gadgets and an NI number and passport and fingerprints. And whilst people call RFID out as the next big thing to fear, the industry has already waaay superseded this… and we all use a lot more personal identifiers.
The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth
What I’ve noticed and have to keep reminding myself is that half the time we over exaggerate what is truly possible with technology today. We blur science fiction with science fact. Or we do the opposite and take religion and culture and wrap ourselves in fear of change. Maybe we assume that everything is linked together in some kind of universal hive mind – and hell bent on being used against us. Well people, if it is, I think given adoption rate of the internet to date and ‘smart phones’ it’s a long way away for that to happen. Most companies still have DOS based data entry programs for goodness sake – not interactive glass touch screens linked seamlessly to other government agencies like I the films we like to watch. Even Facebook with all its wealth of data can’t get the right ad at the right time served to me – let alone on my mobile! And even though my iPhone is tracked, uniquely identified, logged to my credit card and address in iTunes and has a unique identifying number… if it gets stolen, how come the police can’t seem to find it if stolen? The tech is there, the identifier is there, the next person activates it with their ID… and still you cant find my lost iPhone?! But some of us fear that the skies have eyes and they are able to do faaar more than we can imagine. Balance my friends. Balance.
To those who say “I have nothing to hide.” Hogwash. You wear clothes, you close your curtains, you walk out of the room to make that call for one simple reason; privacy. And that is fine and should always be respected. You don’t need your nearest and dearest to know everything all of the time. As the title of this blog suggests, we all have something to hide, and so don’t be duped into a modern marketing myth and forget to engage your logic.
To those who say I’m fearful of being tracked and on the grid. Ok so close your Facebook account. Ditch your mobile. Close your bank account. Only pay everything in cash. Never tell your employer your NI number. Don’t own a passport. Use sandpaper to remove your fingertips… then worry about your saliva. Cause I am positive within a very short period of time the cameras on the street will have sensors that can identify your human scent from a distance that will be far more accurate than facial recognition when you look the opposite way. Technology won’t stand still, and what I know of innovation is that it is just becoming more “organic” in every iteration. Why use a mouse when you can use a trackpad. Why type at all when I can just speak…? Every iteration becomes more and more “human” and more and more powerful. Because the natural organisms we are, are far more complex than any machine – and all machines are designed to something we can already do, just faster or more efficient. They are merely the brainchild’s and extension of humans. So it is not technology I fear, nor tracking – if they can find my iPhone that was stolen! – rather it’s those behind, those criminals who use and manipulate that technology. But it still doesn’t stop me buying an iPhone in case it is either hacked or stolen.
Fear is not unjustified. Fear of change is a very real one. Luddites feared machines that would make textiles faster than they could by hand and thus lose their income and their livelihoods and feared unable to provide for their families. Miners feared coal mines closing for same reason, but fuel of tomorrow will be cleaner and more efficient then fossil fuels were back then… because the steam engine will be electric or something else. Most jobs today will be obsolete in a few years. And with it, will be a whole load of new jobs we haven’t even dreamed of yet… that is the reality. The future isn’t all bad. Its an amazing beautiful diverse world.
Yet not all change is always for the better. Not all tech is neutral, certainly when finds ways into hands of others it wasn’t meant to. And there are countless stories of leaders of thought and technology in our pasts whom on their deathbeds feared what they had unleashed, almost by accident. Equally historical proof is a valuable factor – from Hitler to Stalin to Rwanda massacres and genocides, identification of individuals has been used against them at specific points in time. People have always feared those in charge, because with power should come equal responsibility not just dictatorship. But equally, in the wrong hands even a stick or a word can hurt or maim you.
The Roman poet Juvenal discussed by Plato on concerns around those in governmental charge penned the words “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” – Who watches the watchers? They lived in society where “census” were taken regularly, where the Roman’s forced everyone to go back to their birth town to complete that census. That’s why Jesus was born in Bethlehem, his earth father’s birthtown as opposed to Nazareth where he grew up. That was the cultural environment when the book of Revelation was written. The feared Romans and what they could become. Orwell saw Nazi’s and envisioned a world where after two successive world wars that 1948 could quickly become 1984 and Nazi domination would lead to a terrible controlled existence for all, given certain technological advancements that were already in the pipelines. Fortunately, that hasn’t happened. (Yet?) The question even Juvenal asked back then was is it really ok for those at top to track others, if they themselves are beyond reproach? The fact remains all humans are fallen, sinful creatures. None of us are perfect – despite whatever religious or spiritual or scientific persuasion you follow. And no amount of prayers or vows or offerings will ever make you perfect – though we do try.
Koyaanisqatsi (life out of balance)
When I was asked to present to EU policy makers in Brussels recently about Smart TV and challenges to privacy, I was greatly astounded and encouraged by the mix of young lawyers intently listening and genuinely wrestling with immense cultural changes. Tempered by those with older insights and wisdom, all equally and truly wanting to find a balance of supporting industry innovation and yet protecting the masses from any potential harm. How can you write policy around something not yet invented? These aren’t people desperate for new technology to come to maim and cripple us. They are people with a task to protect and find ways to allow progress to happen within moral and ethical guidelines to protect our basic human rights, because one thing we all know is that change is inevitable.
Do I believe there is a real danger of technologically being implemented and used against mankind? Yes!! I hate the appropriation of some of the ad tracking technology that is more akin to ID Rape then ID theft ever was. The plethora of data out there about me, and will open up abuse that will be far worse than having my credit card cloned. Those of us in the industry have a lot to do to find improvements and ways of helping those who want to buy meet with those who want to sell, without “forcing” them to do so. That’s why the “cookies” were called back into line. Do I think it’s RFID in its current form is the prophesied ‘mark of the beast’? No. Like I said, think what technology you have come to rely on in the last 25 years since barcodes were seen. You probably didn’t even have a computer, let alone Internet or mobile or GPS or anything else. Now imagine what your world will be like in 25 years – and choose whether that will be exciting or scary – but accept it will change, even if some people in it, won’t.
So for me the best thing is to accept we live in an imperfect world with imperfect people who will always look for things to take from you. That there will always be death and taxes. That technology will change and get faster and smaller and better – and more shocking – oh but so much more fun and exciting. There will always be those who seek to oppress others. You aren’t going to change that, but you can help others understand and question for themselves. And let your faith be your light – don’t live in fear of a technology that you have just come across without thinking it through logically – or looking at your own behavior and continued cultural and technological growth. But equally, neither stick your head in the sand either. History unfortunately has a terrible way of repeating itself, and you don’t want to be caught with your pants down now, do you?