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i always feel like somebody’s watching me.
and i’ve got no privacy.
by matt morin

I’ve just sent you an e-mail.

In it, I tell you about this new candy bar – Snickers with Crack™. It’s the greatest thing ever, I say. Just then, a window pops up on your screen -– and what do you know? It’s a coupon for one free Snickers with Crack. Perfect timing, you think to yourself. So you get in your car –- the doors unlock and the car starts up automatically as you approach –- and drive down to the nearest supermarket.

As you push your cart past the zero-calorie Pringles, a commercial for them suddenly starts playing on a small LCD screen attached to your cart. At the end of the spot, a coupon for the tasty chips immediately prints out for you. You pass the milk section, and the digitized voice of James Earl Jones suddenly explains to you that the milk you have in your fridge at home is expired. And when you get in line at the checkout, your cart reminds you you’re out of toothpaste.

Checkout is a breeze –- you simply pass your finger over a sensor and everything in your cart automatically gets charged to your bank account. You’re on your way home in no time.

If this sounds like a scene from Minority Report , you’re wrong. This is a scene from today’s world.

Believe it.

The e-mail I sent you was through Google’s new free e-mail system. This system will “read” every e-mail, scanning it for key words that then tie into specific advertising. So when I mentioned Snickers, the system automatically targeted a specific Snickers ad to you. A nifty bit of marketing, huh?

But how did your car know it was you, and not someone else approaching? Well, that bit of technology is thanks to RFIDs –- Radio Frequency Identification chips. RFIDs are chips smaller than the width of a human hair and they can be easily imbedded into anything. What makes RFIDs so special, is that each one sends out a unique, short-range radio frequency -– in essence, they’re one of a kind. Currently, Mercedes and a few other luxury car makers embed these chips into credit card-like devices, so you simply put the card in your wallet and as you approach your car, it knows you’re coming to drive.

RFIDs play a bigger role at the supermarket. Since each RFID is different, they can be inserted into every single item in the store -– allowing people to track any single item at any moment.

As your cart rolls past certain products, the signal from that can of Pringles tells the cart to play the commercial and print a coupon. The RFID from the milk that’s in your refrigerator at home sends a signal to the fridge that it’s past its expiration date. Your fridge then sends that signal to the supermarket, letting you know it’s time to buy more. At the checkout line, there’s no need to run each product over the bar code reader. Each RFID sends its signal to the cash register and tallies a total. Your fingerprint (or better yet, an RFID implanted in you) confirms the transaction and your account is deducted accordingly.

All of this technology is available today and while some parts of this scenario are only in testing phase, a lot of it is already in use around the world. Sounds pretty cool, huh?

No. No, it’s not cool. Let me finish the scenario.

As you arrive home and are putting away your groceries, you suddenly get two more e-mails. The first one is from your health insurance company.

“Dear Mr. Jones, our RFID data over the past three months indicates you have eaten 22 candy bars, 4 pints of ice cream, 34 pieces of popcorn chicken from KFC, 294 potato chips and assorted other fatty foods. Due to your poor eating habits, we are placing you in the high-risk category and raising your rates accordingly.”

The second e-mail is from your boss.

“Jones, we’ve got to talk first thing tomorrow. In my office. I can’t give you that promotion and raise we talked about. The company discovered you drink a 6-pack every night and own a dozen porn titles…that…uh…I don’t even want to KNOW why you have “Two Guys, a Girl and a Penis Place” on DVD. Oh, and sorry about the hemorrhoids.

Suddenly, there’s a knock on your door. It’s the FBI.

“Mr. Jones?” asks a stern-looking young man in a dark suit and cheesy wrap-around sunglasses. “During a murder investigation, we tracked a steak knife used in the killings to you, the original owner. We’d like to talk to you about how it got there. We’ve also discovered an e-mail reference to 'smoking a doobie' and now have a search warrant to check your house for drugs.”

Once again, you may laugh at this scenario and think it’s farfetched. It’s not.

In 2002 Edward Aldridge, undersecretary of Acquisitions and Technology for the Pentagon, announced the development of a database that can track every purchase made by every American citizen. Its intended goal is seeking “patterns indicative of terrorist activity.” For years, the Government has also denied the rumors of ECHELON -– a technology that searches every satellite, cellular, microwave, radio and fiber optic transmission for key words. Say “kill the President” or “bomb” on a phone and somewhere, someone is going to know. There’s also the mythical TEMPEST system that allows someone to intercept what you type on your keyboard from a remote location –- whether you’re on the Web or not.

Proponents of RFID and data mining technology point to its obvious benefits. You couldn’t steal or shoplift anything with an RFID implanted into it. A bullet, or anything else left at a crime scene, could be easily tracked back to the person who bought it. The time savings for consumers would be incredible -- imagine never having to buy stamps or laundry detergent or toilet paper ever again. As soon as you got low, an RFID would reorder more for you automatically. It all sounds like a great idea.

But the potential for abuse is astounding.

With our privacy rights quickly dwindling in this country, we’ve got to be careful that we don’t lose what we’ve got left. The Patriot Act has increased legal wiretaps by 25% in the last 18 months. And if you think the government isn’t salivating over the ability to monitor every single person all of the time? Well, then you have a lot more faith than I do, my friend.

Luckily, the consumer backlash has helped curb some of this Invasion of the Privacy Snatchers. AOL and RealNetworks are just two companies who had to scrap plans to track consumer listening and buying habits. Google’s free e-mail system has already come under attack for the potential to eavesdrop on members’ e-mails and they’ve revised a policy that entitles the company to retain copies of people's incoming and outgoing e-mail, even after they close their accounts.

So think twice the next time you use your supermarket club card or enter information online. And if you have a chance to fight against the use of RFIDs, do so. Because the way Big Brother is already watching us, it’s beginning to seem more and more like Orwell was only about 20 years off.

Now excuse me, the FBI just showed up at my door.


Matt would love to be George Plimpton...welll, except for the being dead part. He supplies the doing and the writing. All he asks of you is the reading.

more about matt morin


jeffrey walker
4.19.04 @ 1:23p

All the more reason to purchase items in cash. Credit cards not only are a great way to get into a debt hole hard to climb out of, it's also a way to know where you're been shopping and for what.

The reality of these items being used against a purchaser are slim (unless you're buying aluminum tubes suitable for missiles, I guess), but one thing is for sure -- cash purchases are much more discrete. what's in your wallet?

matt morin
4.19.04 @ 1:44p

This is one reason why I have a fake name/phone number for my Safeway Club Card. I just don't really want people knowing everything that I buy.

However I just recently realized that I pay for groceries with my debit card, so my fake name on the club card does me no good.

Jeff, you're right. Cash is the way to go.

sandra thompson
4.19.04 @ 2:53p

There's still time to join the ACLU and send them some of that cash.

tracey kelley
4.19.04 @ 4:45p

The reference to 1984 is spot on.

As I mentioned in my column more of the same, I have no desire for "things" so badly that I need to enter into an Orwellian society to get it. Yet I wonder every time I flick on a new webpage who's watching, and it creeps me out.

matt morin
4.19.04 @ 5:55p

Yeah Tracey, I didn't even get into Web cookies or spyware or all the other Internet stuff like that.

When you start thinking about all the information about you that people are collecting, and how they haven't even scratched the surface on what they can do with that data, it gets a little scary.

robert melos
4.19.04 @ 10:18p

What the RFID chip doesn't allow for is human error, or carelessness. It could track a bullet to the purchaser, but that doesn't mean the guy buying the bullet didn't toss the box out the car window, or have it stolen, or sell it or trade it for something else.

Also the automatic withdrawal only works as long as there is money to withdraw. The hi-tech approach to life doesn't always work.

Also a majority of people can't afford health insurance to track them.

As for me, I took the easy way a long time ago. I don't lie about anything or keep secrets, and every part of my life is on the Internet in one form or another. You just have to know where to look.

michelle von euw
4.19.04 @ 11:00p

Can I have the milk thing, though? That, I hate to admit, sounds awesome. My milk constantly goes bad without me knowing it. Actually, and the toothpaste thing, too -- I always get to the grocery store and forget what I need. Oh, and coupons...I think I'd also like the coupons for things I actually wanted to buy.

Yeah, I know, it's people like me who screw it up for the rest of you guys.

dan gonzalez
4.19.04 @ 11:58p

what they can do with that data, it gets a little scary.

And you should be scared, with your Michael Moore books and listening to Al Franken on the radio. :-P

But seriously, as an internet geek, the sheer lack of understanding that congress has regarding technology is nerve-wracking. And the difficulty of policing such a decentralized, abstract medium is daunting.

I don't lie about anything or keep secrets, and every part of my life is on the Internet in one form or another. You just have to know where to look

I do largely the same, and I assume no privacy on the Internet, largely due to Microsoft. It is the only safe assumption, and the only security is not to do or put anything on the 'net if you want it to be private or secure.

Yeah, I know, it's people like me who screw it up for the rest of you guys.

Nah, neurotic guys like us need stable people to look up to. Thanks! ;-)

lisa r
4.20.04 @ 7:16a

I look at it this way: my life and my buying habits are both distressingly boring. If the government is so desperate to achieve Big Brother status, then they deserve to be driven mad by the mundaneness that is my life. I figure it's fitting retribution for making me pay income tax and subjecting me to endless political elections.

tracey kelley
4.20.04 @ 11:09a

Yeah, you crazy smooth peanut butter person. smirk

And you should be scared, with your Michael Moore books and listening to Al Franken on the radio. :-P


I love coupons - I just don't want to have to tell how much I weigh or my favorite sexual position to get them.

Imagine that - you walk into the porn shop, purchase a pudding-filled apparatus, and your sexual proclivities are communicated back to some extremist Sixth Day Witnesses Against Sex on Tuesdays group.

'Course, with Matt, all his sexual preferences have already been spread across the Internet.

"He's the one who wrote the sex column."

"Ahhh...." and they all nod knowingly.

Michelle, I forget things all the time. I have a running list of anything I might need anywhere that I keep in my purse.

lisa r
4.20.04 @ 11:37a

Yeah, you crazy smooth peanut butter person.

Hehe...I wonder just what they would make of someone who buys creamy Jif, every Def Leppard & Travis Tritt album to hit the market, Luzianne teabags, and half'n'half by the quart.

matt morin
4.20.04 @ 11:37a

Technically, I wrote two sex columns.

This one and this one.

But your point is well-made Tracey. What if right-wing Christian groups bought information on everyone who purchased birth control, then cross referenced it with married people to get a list of unmarried people who are having sex. Then they picket their houses or deluge them with letters about how they're sinning.

Here's another possibility: Car makers implant RFIDs into new cars. Sensors in the road then calculate if you're driving more than 5 mph over the speed limit and automatically mail a ticket to your home.

It's completely possible, would generate TONS of revenue for states, and would all but eliminate speeding.

dan gonzalez
4.20.04 @ 11:57a

Worse, I'm walking with my kids in the store and a coupon for Extra-Small Sheik Sensi-Creme condoms pops out. How do yo explain that?

lisa r
4.20.04 @ 12:05p

Heck, Dan, you don't need to wait for RFIDs for that sort of quandary, just walk down the women's products aisle at the grocery store with a precocious 2 year-old sometime. (That happened to a friend of mine who's a single father with a girl child that inherited his forthrightness. It makes for some highly interesting conversations at times, and lots of sputtering and speechlessness on his part.)


matt morin
4.30.04 @ 3:12p

So today, Wal-Mart just announced that they're starting to use RFIDs in some of the products they sell.

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