Implanting knowledge before chips

RFID is a generic term for technologies that use radio waves to identify people or objects by implanting chips.

Jake Perron

I don’t usually revisit previous columns, but the diverse reactions I received to “Life keeps getting easier – and scarier” (Oct. 8) prompts me to do so.

One such reaction came from Mark Roberti, editor of “RFID Journal,” the self-proclaimed “World’s RFID authority,” who penned an ad hominem letter to The Minnesota Daily and posted it on the RFID Journal’s Web site(

What purpose does the editor of a trade publication have for spinning the less attractive side of RFID technology? Self-interest? Company interest? Damage control?

To refresh your memory about this technology (and my anxiety about it) here’s a description of RFID taken from the RFID Journal’s frequently asked quesetions: Radio frequency identification, or RFID, is a generic term for technologies that use radio waves to automatically identify people or objects.

While I am not the first to be the object of Roberti’s name-calling and quote-mining critiques, I wish to address the sensationalist manner in which Roberti responded to my article.

RFID and consumer privacy experts Katherine Albrecht and Liz McIntyre were dead-on when they said, “Reading Mr. Roberti’s rebuttal is like entering an alternate universe,” in their response to Roberti’s critique of their acclaimed book “Spychips: How Major Corporations and Government Plan to Track Your Every Purchase and Watch Your Every Move.”

They go on to warn, “RFID promoters like Mark Roberti have devoted considerable effort to stemming the damage. At least that’s the most obvious explanation we could find for Mr. Roberti’s expending five pages of prime Internet real estate to discussing about our book except its central point – namely that: Major corporations have been caught red-handed describing ways to use RFID to spy on the rest of us. As the industry’s chief ‘journalistic’ cheerleader, the RFID Journal knows that part of its job is to make the industry look good and divert attention away from scandals that could taint its reputation.”

I couldn’t agree more with Albrecht and McIntyre’s view. The Robertian alternate universe I’ve entered is one where time changes facts.

Recall my use of Steven Van Fleet’s enthusiasm about RFID, “We’ll put a RFID tag on everything that moves in the North American supply chain.” Roberti’s critique: “The quote is at least three or four years old and dates back to the days when companies involved in the Auto-ID Center were promoting the benefits of EPC technology.”

How is it relevant whether or Steven Van Fleet is still employed by the company? He still spoke to the matter of concern. And has promoting EPC technology disappeared?

Roberti could have avoided another error in his piece had he actually finished my article. In an attempt to downplay RFID’s less attractive side, he sarcastically praises me for uncovering “a big story missed by The New York Times and The Washington Post.”

I figured I had ruined my chance to even pretend that I had uncovered this big story when I used a quote from a New York Times op-ed by Ted Koppel. He expressed the need for consumer awareness about RFID technology. “There is no end to what we will endure, support, pay for and promote if only it makes our lives easier, promises to save us money, appears to enhance our security and comes to us in a warm, cuddly and altogether non-threatening package.” (This sounds a lot like the title of my article.)

Contrary to Roberti’s assertion that The Minnesota Daily is a city newspaper, this is a campus newspaper supported by an academic environment. Within this environment, academic freedom encourages the questioning of such topics as RFID and the marketing of its proponents.

I wrote an opinion piece for the campus newspaper. I have an opinion. I think implanting humans with chips is frightening.

Surprisingly, Roberti and I agree on this; though he puts it much more subtly: “I don’t know if getting a chip under your skin is a good or bad idea.”

Roberti also supports a marketplace of ideas in the RFID discussion: “I’m glad there are people out there willing to expose their views, and who are not intimidated by privacy advocates,” he writes, complimenting a doctor who supports implanting children with chips.

I invite readers to discuss this matter, as the technology holds great promise and will undoubtedly be significant in our future. Whether or not we are familiar with the most alluring and most destructive sides of this argument will dictate how the technology shapes our lives. As of now, nothing is written in stone.

And Roberti – you’re invited to engage in discussion as well – so long as you leave the name-calling at the playground.

Jake Perron welcomes comments at [email protected]