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RFID with privacy in mind


If you have trouble grasping the following scenario, kindly consult your nearest Philip K. Dick-inspired paranoid: Retailers are planning to turn our blue jeans into tracking beacons by replacing bar - code labels with radio frequency identification tags stitched into the garments. Each RFID tag has a unique electronic product code that will be matched with its owner's personal information in a massive global database. The one world government will then track the tags -- and us -- with hidden reader devices capable of scanning the RFID tags (or ``arfids") at distances up to 30 feet.

This is the dark vision of Biblical literalists such as Katherine Albrecht, a consumer privacy advocate with a doctoral degree from Harvard, who speaks at Bible prophecy conferences and has co authored a book titled ``The Spychips Threat: Why Christians Should Resist RFID and Electronic Surveillance."

RFID industry execs insist the tags are meant only to improve inventory tracking, fight counterfeiting, and speed product recalls and returns.

Consumers, they say, will enjoy cost savings and improved personal safety and better health as a result. But Albrecht's message about the arfid privacy threat has stuck, and the American Civil Liberties Union and Electronic Frontier Foundation consider her an ally. So many companies are scrambling to come up with technologies to make the tags less vulnerable to electronic snooping, or ``skimming."

Under one ``secure RFID" proposal from a Danish company, RFIDsec (, consumers will be able to control whether their tags' radio signals can be picked up by reader devices. Unlike proposed tag killing machines (which permanently disable RFID tags) or IBM's new clipped tag (which has a tear-off antenna), RFIDsec's secure RFID chip and its antenna would remain intact, even after the consumer ``programs" the tag to be undetectable by reader devices.

Consumers will still be able to kill arfids with secure RFID chips. But they will also be able to acquire authentication codes they can use to switch the tags into a privacy mode at checkout, and then back to a fully active mode (with the tag's electronic product code again fully readable) if they choose to return the item.

How exactly the secure RFID chip will work is unclear. To me, the whole thing sounds awfully complicated. But the effort shows just how eager the industry appears to be to keep RFID tags on, and active, after checkout.

One handset for all
A new phone developed by Paragon Wireless ( demonstrates how some cell phones in the near future will work in ``dual-mode," meaning they can be switched from cellular services to free (or dirt-cheap) voice-over Internet Protocol whenever they come across a WiFi network. At home, you could switch your cell phone to your Vonage VoIP account, for example. At the coffee shop, you might jump onto a WiFi network and use your Skype account.

You probably will not be able to purchase Paragon's Linux smartphone, called the hipi. Its real purpose is to prove the reliability of Paragon's dual-mode technology to the company's potential cellular business partners.

Dual-mode phones will likely require you to switch between your cellular and VoIP phone numbers by pushing a button on the handset. But automatic switching, ``given the right wireless infrastructures," may be possible in the future, said Paragon vice president Ilkka Pouttu.

Social computing
Presence awareness for online chatters

With instant messaging, it's easy to miss even the most eye-popping icon when your favorite buddy comes online. No so with Availabot, a push puppet that snaps to attention whenever that special someone becomes available. The London design shop Schulze and Webb Ltd. built the USB toy as part of its exploration of ubiquitous computing, a field that seeks to harness our sensor-and-computer laden urban environments. The quirky firm is also designing mobile phones made from wood, fabric, and metal.

The first 100 Availabots should be on sale in about six weeks (no price set) and word of mouth is already driving demand for the toy.

``I guess it's because we're building a bridge between the world of toys and the world of the Internet, and not many people are doing that," said one of the firm's principals, Matt Webb.

Mark can be reached at

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