The RFID Epidemic

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I can’t help but think that the whole RFID tag phenomenon is just going to get weirder. You know, those miniature data tags that are getting stuck in everything. Hit ’em with a radio signal and they ping you back with a tiny scrap of info. Companies like Wal-Mart stick them in products to help with supply chain management. They’re in smart cards and lift tickets and car tires and airline baggage tags and library books. They’ve been in stray dogs for years. As of Jan. 1 of this year they’re in every U.S. passport. (I hear you can disable them by smacking them with a hammer.)

They’re so cheap and so tiny and so useful, it’s getting to the point where you’re looking for reasons not to stick them in things. Every car, appliance, dish, paper document. You can imagine an omniscient RFID-reading eye that could see all the tags at once, globally, in a huge, glittering, circulating mass (I picture it like those gorgeous orbital light pollution images, or the original Gibsonian idea of cyberspace as a kind of congested superhighway of data).

I’ve had some dealings with VeriChip, a company that makes human-implantable RFID tags, an idea so obvious and so bad that somebody had to implement it. In this country they bill it as a way of easily accessing a patient’s health records, though I think they’re having trouble getting it adopted (the tags are too small to hold the actual records, but they’d store a unique ID number, which the hospital could use to access a national database); in South America, where kidnapping is epidemic, they’ve been billed as a Lojack-like human tracking device. There have even been rumblings about the Verichip as a means of immigration control. The company went public last Friday; looks like shares have fallen off a tad. Nice NASDAQ symbol though: CHIP.

Personally I picture the human-implantable RFID tag as merging with social networks — the RFID tag becomes a geospecific form of traditional Web 2.0 tagging. People will walk around enveloped in the tags that others have slapped on them — “hot,” “douchebag,” “gives to the homeless,” “good at math,” “poor impulse control,” etc. (Of course you’ll need your retinal implants to see all that.)

In 2002 I wrote a piece for Time about the Jacobs family of Boca Raton, Fla., who were Verichip’s test family, the first humans to get the implant. They seemed very nice, especially their son Derek, who at 14 was already a Microsoft-certified systems engineer. Last year I heard that Derek died in a motorcyle accident. It’s a damn shame. The world needs more good geeks.

[Update: trolling BoingBoing mere minutes after posting, I came across this: Hitachi has a new RFID chip that’s .05x.05 mm. It’s basically fine-ground-pepper sized. Stuff’s gonna be everywhere. Whoops, found a better source here.]