You know them. You love them. You buy telephones, televisions and toilet paper from them.
But Wal-Mart, Philips, IBM and dozens of other companies are keeping tabs on your products with itty-bitty radio frequency identification tags -- known as RFID for short. The technology, around since World War II, uses a computer chip the size of a grain of rice to store data, which is transmitted wirelessly by a tiny antenna to a receiver.
Katherine Albrecht, founder and director of Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering, calls the lil' buggers spychips because of their opportunity for invasiveness. In her book "Spychips: How Major Corporations and Government Plan to Track Your Every Move with RFID," Albrecht uses press releases, articles, patent applications and more to paint a "1984"-ish picture of how corporations would like to use RFID tags to keep tabs on you.
"All of this would be invisible," Albrecht tells asap. "It would be silent. The reader devices can be hidden in walls. They can be hidden in shelves. They can be placed in doorways. They can be woven into carpet. They can literally be slipped under the floor tiles of the store so you'd be walking around having no idea at all the places where you were going were secretly interrogating the things you were wearing and carrying to tell information about you."
Sue Hutchinson, director of product management for EPCglobal, says when it comes to RFID technology, industries care less about you and more their products. EPCglobal -- the EPC stands for Electronic Product Code -- is a consortium of companies, such as Philips and IBM, that support RFID and other electronic ID technology.
"Once it's left the store, it's just a couple of numbers," she says of the tags, whose range usually reach up to a few feet. "And you have to have some very, very specialized equipment to be able to read those numbers. More importantly, our whole community -- the EPC community -- is operating under a set of voluntary guidelines for responsible use of the technology."
Hutchinson says, according to EPCglobal's standards, consumers must be given "notice when these technologies are in the store and in use, a choice about whether or not they want to use the tag or dispose of the tag after purchase, education about the technology and its uses." In addition, participating companies must have "good control over information that is retained by the people using the technologies."
"It literally has nothing to do with the person buying it," Hutchinson says. "The RF tag is only used in identifying the thing it's attached to."
Fine. Just keep tags off the T.P., please.
Derrik J. Lang is an asap reporter based in New York.