An article in the July 2004 issue of Wired about RFID chips is certainly worth reading, because we are all consumers of one sort….

An article in the latest Wired magazine (July 2004), web posted July 7— caught my attention today with its reference to “the mark of the beast.” I have heard about “smart chips” that can be embedded in various objects and communicate passively and actively, and have read about the potential for this technology to promote individualized marketing as well as much more detailed consumer tracking.

The CASPIAN organization (Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering – www.nocards.org) is a vocal group opposing this possibly inevitable technological trend. The economic forces here are clearly powerful: billions of dollars are wasted each year by organizations due to mistakes and problems with inventory tracking, and marketers are constantly angling for ways to more efficiently direct market custom messages to potential clients likely to be interested in their product.

Lots of interesting issues are raised here, which are personally relevant to every consumer worldwide. What is the right to privacy, anyway? Privacy, as I recall from K-12 and undergraduate social studies / political science studies, is not an explicitly guaranteed right in the US Bill of Rights. It is an inferred right. One which has incidentally been seriously eroded, I think, by recent anti-terrorism Congressional legislation. Most Americans seem to believe and support a “right to privacy,” but where can and should the boundary lines for this right be drawn? It seems clear that with so many economic incentives at work, the boundary lines are likely to be redrawn in the near term.

As the price for embedded RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) chips continues to decrease, the economic opportunity cost for major retailers to require these items to be included in products they sell goes down. Translated, this means that as time marches on, we are more likely to see RFID chips in WalMart. If this makes shopping easier, will many people complain? Maybe not. But should we be troubled by the potential for corporations to track our every financial move, so they can profit all the more from their knowledge of our spending preferences? I think we should.

I am already troubled that to shop at Albertsons and pay a reasonable cost / realize the “value savings,” I have to give them my phone number. The barcode wore off the plastic shopping card they eagerly gave me, so they put my “number” into their computer so it now corresponds with my phone number. I think as a global consumer, I would like the right to remain anonymous. When I buy something at Toys-R-Us and the checkout clerk asks for my phone number, I generally decline the invitation. Of course, if I pay by check, they will get the phone number generally on the check, so paying with cash in this case seems to be surest way to remain anonymous. But who carries cash these days? I certainly don’t carry much…..

What will become of our “right to privacy” in the early to mid 21st Century? That is a vital question. As consumers, I think part of this right to privacy (which really is transcendental– it should apply regardless of my geographic location or nationality) should be the right to remain anonymous. The right to not be tracked. Why? Well for one, I think in general the public is manipulated way too much now, as it is, by marketers. The economic incentive is and will continue to be (I expect) more customized, more directed marketing. Why? Not because it is “good for me” as a consumer! Because individuals and companies want to sell more stuff!

Am I saying capitalism is an immoral economic system and I am a Marxist? No, let’s not get too carried away here….. but it certainly would be fair to say that I am and plan to continue being critical of our market economy and the assumptions which many seem to make about its inherent benefits.

Do I want RFID chips to be in all or many of the products I buy, now or in the future? Probably not. Is my opinion going to matter on this? Time will tell……

CASPIAN has a good section of “take action” suggestions, which I am going to consider seriously….. this is not a techno-trend that is likely to be here today and gone tomorrow. 🙁

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