Get Out Your Tinfoil Hats… Erm, Wallets…

I love conspiracy theories.  Some of them I’ll ascribe some grains of truth to, and some are just fun to read (see David Icke’s reptilian theory).  I figure that just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean that they aren’t out to get me.  One particular item that seemed like a crazy conspiracy theory several years ago is now popping up as a reality: the RFID chip.

RFID stands for radio frequency identification chip.  RFIDs skyrocketed to infamy when various folks out there claimed that RFIDs were/are going to be implanted into people to track their movements, buying habits, etc.  Well, the FDA has approved RFIDs for personal implantation, but I don’t think the trend has caught on yet.  That said, I also don’t believe that it’s totally out of the realm of possibility for someone to suggest that they be used in this manner at some point in the future.

RFIDs are little bitty chips that can be scanned and read from (as of 2005) as far away as about 65-70 feet.  Most of them don’t have their own power supply; they “come to life” when the scanner activates them.  They can be programmed with information like serial numbers, barcodes, or identification for individuals.

As it stands today, RFIDs are used in things like passports (mine is old and doesn’t have one, but my husband’s UK passport does), credit cards (Chase bank uses them), drivers’  licenses, clothes, and other items.  Wait, clothes?! you say, bewildered.  You betcha!  Wal-Mart began a policy starting last year that they chip all of their clothes in all of their stores to prevent shoplifting.  American Apparel apparently does the same thing with their tiny T-shirts.  Europe has been doing it for some time, but the RFIDs are removed upon checkout and reused, which seems sensible enough to me.  Wal-Mart RFIDs are not removed upon purchase.  It seems it would be your job to remove the RFID, assuming you even know it’s there at all.

Many people are becoming increasingly uneasy about RFIDs.  While the technology certainly saves a few seconds and makes things more convenient, people are wondering if the benefits outweigh the risk of identity theft.  If most Wal-Mart items are embedded with RFID chips, someone with a scanner – they aren’t that hard to make, apparently – could theoretically go through your trash and know what you’ve been purchasing.  For items such as IDs and credit cards, the risk is more upfront: someone with a chip reader could access your information and use it do any number of sundry and decidedly inconvenient things.

With passports, drivers’ licenses, and things like the Florida Sun Pass (Florida tollway card), how easy will it be for someone to steal our information?  Do we really want the government or whatever subcontractor they’ve hired to do the job nosing through all of our information?  They say that for states on borders, such as California, where many people cross the border for work and/or pleasure with some degree of frequency, it will make things easier. But again, is it worth the risk for this convenience?  Also, theoretically, RFID chips in passports and such could be activated from just about anywhere. The government could potentially track you at any time.  Is this really what we want?

Of course, in response to the concerns about identity theft, at least one company has popped up that makes RFID scan-proof wallets and passport holders.  They aren’t super-pricy, although I would make no claims about whether or not they work.  Of course, you can also just make your own from aluminum and duct tape.  (I had a duct tape wallet in high school.  It was classy.)   Aluminum?! you cry.  Do I have to be a card-carrying tinfoil-hat-wearer now, Lady?  Well, no.  You could shell out $30-$40 and get the classy leather wallet.  But the aluminum – or copper or any other metal – has the effect of creating a mini Farraday cage.  In other words, it keeps unwanted signals from activating the RFID and reaching your precious information.  And I’m not saying “precious” lightly – anyone who has ever had to deal with identity theft knows what a royal and costly pain in the posterior it can be!

I am in Asia, and I can say now with certainty that RFIDs are being used here.  How do I know?  I found one in my school classroom that had fallen off or been ripped off of a piece of clothing that one of my kids was wearing.  I happened to see that it had “RFID” printed in bold letters on the side.  I snatched it up, brought it home, and took a picture so that all of you readers can see what they look like when they come attached to a clothing label.  They are incredibly tiny, and if you weren’t looking for it, you’d likely never realize it was there.

So what’s my point in writing this article?  Information.  I don’t want to scare anybody.  I’m not insinuating that the government wants to chip everyone, although I also don’t rule that out as a possibility later on down the line.  They are beginning to appear in everyday items, and they do carry a risk factor when used in conjunction with personal ID.  I think everyone should be aware of them, and I think that you should be able to make the decision whether or not you want to frequent a merchant who chips their clothing.  I also think you should be armed with the knowledge of possible risks, especially when traveling in busy airports with unknowns all around you or shopping in giant stores, where you never know who is looking for their next naive target.  As the saying goes, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!”

Here is our little RFID friend (or foe):

This is an RFID chip I found in my school. I assume it came from a clothing item.

About The Lady Libertarian
I am American, currently expatriated but hopeful about getting back home one of these days. Besides reading and writing about politics, I enjoy camping, sailing, canoeing, making pie, and traveling. I hope you'll enjoy this blog and find it informative and accessible.

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