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From the beginning, radio frequency identification (RFID) tags have been controversial. RFID tags are about the size of a grain of rice and about as thick as a toothpick. Most of the products you buy today have a RFID tag in them.

Retailers like RFID tags because it helps with inventory control. Not surprisingly, WalMart is a big supporter of RFID tags. They have informed all of their vendors that if their products do not contain RFID tags WalMart will find another vendor. WalMart’s threat is no small matter. They are credited with getting bar codes on household products when, in the late 70’s, they told their vendors if their product did not display a bar code within one year they could no longer sell to WalMart. In that year bar codes appeared on most every product.

The reason WalMart wants RFID tags is mainly for inventory control. When a truck arrives at a WalMart warehouse all of the products are stacked on pallets and wrapped in plastic. Instead of counting the number of boxes by hand the pallet is scanned. The number of items on the pallet are registered in the computer system.

If some joker somehow gets into one of the boxes and removes just one item, the system will know. For example, if a worker removes a package of razor blades, then later is caught with the package still on him, a scan of the RFID tag will show exactly which pallet that package of razor blades was taken from.

The new passports contain RFID tags. Without removing your passport from your pocket or purse your passport is scanned. All of the data contained in the passport flashes on a screen—along with your photo.

All of this worries people who look out for our privacy rights. People like Barry Steinhardt, director of the Technology and Liberty Program at the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington, D.C.. He is concerned that every action we take, every movement we make will be recorded.

Opponents of RFID tags to track our movements and actions agree that the first to be ‘chipped’ will be military soliders and Alzheimer’s patients. At first, chipping Alzheimer’s patients sounds like a good idea. An Alzheimer’s patient wanders away. The police find the Alzheimer’s patient wandering the street and scan her for a RFID tag. The patient is quickly identified and returned safely home.

For the Alzheimer’s patient to be scanned means that the police cars are equipped with scanners. It isn’t a far stretch to imagine that the next group to be ‘chipped’ would be convicts. Finger prints would be a thing of the past. A quick scan and the felon’s prior offenses would appear on the monitor screen.

A few companies have already made chipping a job requirement. Not only is it required for security reasons, but it isn’t unreasonable to see where an employer would find it as a great way to replace the time clock.

Marc Rotenberg, of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, is suspicious about the motives of the RFID supplier, which charges $20 a year for each customer to keep a record of blood type, allergies, medications, driver’s license data and living-will directives in its database. For $80 a year a person can maintain their entire medical record. Currently Blue Shield and Horizon Blue Cross have a pilot program to implant patients with chronic diseases.