If you haven’t heard of RFID technology, you will be forgiven. This technology aroused the resistance of global consumers and privacy organizations in the mid-21st century, involved in a far right conspiracy about Obama’s health care reform, and even worried by some evangelical Christians that it is a sign of antichrist.
RFID is everywhere, from cars charged electronically to contactless subway cards, and then to item labels in the supply chain. It refers to a set of wireless identification technology for people and things. In order to facilitate identification, some domestic pets are implanted with RFID tags; Some people even inject RFID into their hands to replace access cards or credit cards. In other words, RFID tags are everywhere.
Ironically, the public attention to these tags in the mid-2000s seems to be inversely proportional to the number of RFID tags actually used. For example, the most prominent protests occurred during this period, and Google’s search for RFID peaked around 2007. But at that time, the technology was still in a relatively early stage, at least for retail and logistics. Now we are at a time when RFID has finally begun to realize its expected potential, but the public’s attention has almost disappeared. Apart from China’s mandatory use of RFID car tags or some companies that provide voluntary injection RFID services, this technology has rarely become a public topic.
But this is not always the case. Reviewing these disputes can provide information for the development of this technology. After all, people’s concern about RFID did not disappear in the mid-2000s.
The history of RFID can be traced back to the early emergence of radar, but this technology did not begin to attract people’s attention until 1999. That year, the word “Internet of things” appeared at a conference on the use of RFID to tag individual items. Within a few years, Wal Mart announced its authorization to tag all goods with RFID, and other companies are exploring similar projects. At some point in the early 21st century, RFID tags seem to one day replace bar codes and become the main way of commodity identification in the supply chain and retail environment. However, the RFID industry faces some problems. First, the effect of labels is often not as good as expected; Secondly, the RFID industry was reviewed by a “consumer organization group against supermarket privacy infringement and numbering” (Caspian), which shows that the group has noticed the popularity of RFID technology.
Caspian was initially an organization dedicated to protesting supermarket membership cards, but the struggle has never received much attention. Later, they turned their attention to RFID technology and organized protests against the use of RFID technology in retail places around the world. The first general strike organized by Caspian took place in 2003, when they protested an RFID pilot project of the famous Italian clothing brand Benetton group. The protest worked and the trial was over. Similar protests also targeted Wal Mart, mainly the “smart shelf” pilot project launched by Wal Mart in a store in Massachusetts – the “smart shelf” with RFID tag products will take photos immediately after detecting that someone has removed items. The protests received enough attention, and Wal Mart finally chose to give up the deployment of smart shelves. Subsequently, in 2005 and 2006, protests focused on products using RFID tags by Tesco and Levi’s.
RFID protests are not limited to retail. In 2004, a coalition of 39 privacy organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the electronic border Foundation (EFF) and Caspian, jointly wrote an open letter on opposing the use of RFID in biometric passports. Although these efforts did not prevent the use of RFID passports, it was a harbinger that later protests focused on RFID enhanced driving licenses.
But people worry far more than ID cards. People began to worry that RFID was forcibly implanted into the human body. At least four states in the United States – California, North Dakota, Oklahoma and Wisconsin have passed legislation prohibiting the mandatory implantation of RFID chips. Some of these concerns may be related to the beliefs of some evangelical communities, that is, RFID may be related to the “beast mark” predicted in revelation, but these concerns are not unique to the United States. In 2006, the British Daily Mail published an article entitled: “Britons may be microchip like dogs in ten years.” in 2006, a book specifically warning people to use RFID even topped Amazon’s best seller list. All these show that some people really care.
Although the protests did not stop the use of electronic fees or RFID passports, they may indeed slow down the deployment of RFID in the retail industry. At the very least, major business publications in the retail industry have been forced to respond and add a regular column on privacy protection. However, the protests finally subsided for various reasons. Although RFID will have more and more application scenarios, the protests have never fully resumed. In particular, the wide range of article level label types that led to the global boycott in the early 2000s are finally beginning to appear, but only a small part of them have attracted public attention in the experimental stage.
Even though RFID seems to have survived many disputes and become one of many data production infrastructures, this history is still important. After all, it is still possible that something will happen that will lead to another outbreak of such protests. At least for the foreseeable future, some protests about electronic fees or support for RFID ID cards may fail. However, the use of RFID to tag goods in stores is still in its early stage, so that the public’s renewed attention to RFID technology may still seriously affect the launch of its goods.
Ironically, before RFID became as widely used as it is now, the protests gradually disappeared, and there are many possible explanations. One reason may be that the field of personal data is now more complex than before and after 2005. To some extent, compared with massive data profiles based on mobile phone data, browsing history, credit card purchases, etc., the data obtained by an organization from RFID tags may seem a little novel.
Another reason may be that the protests frightened the company and they had to establish more sound privacy protection measures, which may explain why there have been no major RFID related scandals in the retail industry in the past 10 years. This may not be entirely certain, but the future of technology is inevitable.
RFID, as another infrastructure that shapes our lives in an invisible way, may have entered a rather peaceful status quo. Organizations deploying this technology certainly hope so. But some things will change, and we will return to the period of RFID high visibility. Only time will tell us whether RFID will continue to hide behind the scenes or become the source of protests and public debate again.
Responsible editor: CT