FRAMINGHAM (10/06/2003) - A few weeks ago I broke down and RFIDed my dog, Mrs. Beasley. She'd released herself on her own recognizance from others' care twice, and after the last episode--involving four days at large in Woburn, Mass., and a close encounter with a commuter train--it seemed entirely fitting to inject a radio frequency identification chip the size of a grain of rice under her skin. The chip contains a unique serial number that will match Mrs. Beasley back up to me should she be turned in to a shelter or vet that uses an RFID scanner.
Indeed, I likely won't stop there--transponders with GPS arrays are just about to find their way into the pet-retrieval business, and for a few hundred dollars I'll be able to use a laptop or PDA to pinpoint Mrs. Beasley's location at all times. If I and roughly 1.8 million other Americans have RFIDed our pets to help find them if lost, why wouldn't responsible parents LoJack their children as well as their cars?
I think they would and will as soon as the technology becomes stable and cheap. What seems downright wrong or at least surreal can soon become routine, as people recognize the benefits of a new technology--particularly a safety-oriented one. Assigning unique identifiers to humans has an ignominious past, but images from the first set of children to be reunited with their parents thanks to such technology will casually moot years of debate and anxiety about ubiquitous surveillance and its manifest potential for abuse.
Ending most games of hide-and-seek is only the beginning. Companies such as nTag Interactive offer interactive RFID units for use at conventions and meetings. An exchange of personal data is triggered after two people stand across from each other for more than a minute, permitting attendees to generate a report of everyone they meet at the conference. People with overlapping interests might be especially targeted for each other, with tags indicating just how much reason they have to want to get acquainted. The implications flow far beyond expo center floors. Imagine being able to walk down a busy downtown street and automatically discern old college acquaintances, friends of friends, even lost relatives. The alienation within the modern Western city--so many people, each pretending not to notice one another--could be replaced by the thousands of serendipitous encounters and moments that otherwise don't happen because we are a hair's breadth away from being in just the right place at the right time.
There are many articulate inventories of undesirable results from privacy-invading technologies; one can bemoan the prospect that a private investigator or nosy neighbor could point a dish at someone's house and immediately inventory all the RFIDed products (and pets and people) inside. Innocent people as well as the guilty could be located in a heartbeat by a government already enamored with ankle bracelets for those under house arrest. Objections such as those cause refinements in the systems--an element in RFID standards that supposes one might want to disable them--or even slight delays in their adoption. Wal-Mart, which had been among the first to declare its intention to roll out RFIDs, just canceled a joint test of them with Gillette in a Boston-area retail store. Instead, Wal-Mart is installing RFID systems in warehouses and distribution centers; retail stores can follow later.
But, like most privacy-related objections to anything, they will attenuate with time if the case for convenience and safety can be made. I don't regret the RFID in my dog, and by the time I have children, I likely won't regret RFIDing them either--indeed, it'll most likely be as routine and responsible a part of the delivery process as cutting the umbilical cord. It will be an act that replaces a physical cord with a much thicker virtual tether, both a conduit to and from the limitless expanse of cyberspace, and a chain anchoring one to it.
What He Thinks About: Cryptography, electronic privacy rights and technology in education.
Where He Thinks: He is a codirector at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at the Harvard Law School, and the Jack N. and Lillian R. Berkman Assistant Professor of Entrepreneurial Legal Studies at Harvard Law School.
What He's Written: Read Zittrain on copyright and the Internet in sister publication www.Darwinmag.com.
Where He Is On The Web: A webpage.
Bio Bit: Zittrain served as co-counsel for the plaintiffs on Eldred v. Ashcroft, the legal action to overturn the Copyright Term Extension Act heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.