Thursday, March 20, 2008

Next lines of cell phones have privacy implications

Adding to the list of consumer goods that will soon contain RFID tags is the almight cell phone. Thankfully we have David Lazarus of the Los angeles Times (but article is in the Fresno Bee) takes us through the privacy implications of cell phones that will allow each and every one of us to be tracked, anywhwere and everywhere:

But the same chip-based technology that California won't allow to be forcibly placed under people's skin soon will be ubiquitous in cell phones, which the telecommunications industry believes will be used increasingly as electronic wallets to make purchases.


Here's how it'll work: You go to a store, select a pair of khakis and wave your phone in front of a reader at the cash register. The purchase price instantly is deducted from your checking account like a debit card or applied to a credit card account. A record of the purchase also is entered into the store's database. That's very convenient, and undeniably will be a boon to shoppers, merchants and cell phone companies.

What the technology also means, though, is that all cell phone owners, which is nearly everyone, will be technologically "tagged." In theory, anyone -- or any company or government agency -- with a desire to do so would be able to identify you from as far as 300 feet away and track you as you go about your business.

Your cell phone constantly would be broadcasting your location, along with, possibly, your name, address and other potentially sensitive information.


At the moment, the most common form of RFID tagging in this country is what is known as a "passive" emitter. That means the tag has no independent power source and must be activated by an external scanner, usually within a range of 25 feet.

Increasingly, passive tags are being replaced with tiny battery-operated "active" tags that continuously transmit signals as far as 300 feet. Those signals can be picked up by anyone with an RFID scanner.


In 2006, for example, IBM received patent approval for a system that, according to the patent application, could be "used to monitor the person through the store or other areas."

That "or other areas" is what spooks privacy advocates. At the moment, there are few limits on how this technology can be used.

"The notion that we're building a surveillance society is very real," said Sophia Cope, a staff attorney at the Center for Democracy and Technology, which focuses on civil liberties in the digital age.

Click here to read the article in its entirety, and hear some of the ideas being pushed to regulate the technology.

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