Friday, April 14, 2006

RFID tags and the Coming New Fascism

I was talking to a physicist friend of mine yesterday. We were recounting the sad state of the US intelligence in our military engagement with, and subsequent domestic managing of, Iraq. Also troubling is our international diplomatic standing, which is related to, but not exclusively the result of, the Iraq fumble. Take, for instance, our top-level leaders' head-in-the-sand approach to global warming. And it's not just Pres. Bush, but apparently many in his cabinet. What does this have to do with RFID?

RFID, short for [R]adio [F]requency [ID]dentification, is a technology that incorporates the use of electromagnetic or electrostatic coupling in the radio frequency portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. Tiny sticky tags, or some such similar connecting mechanism, are used to append RFID units so as to uniquely identify some object. When the manufacturing cost of the units that take advantage of this technology comes down -- and some argue it has now done so -- then every consumer project, indeed every object of a size commonly used in your life can be tagged and catalogued automatically by computers that come within the range of the signal-interacting RFID units. Something like how ever the ever more popular Bluetooth devices automatically detect other devices which they can interact with.

In principle, this means, for example, that I could drive a non-descript box truck by your house, and detect every consumer product that had a sticky tag attached. The functional range of RFID tags is usually around a meter, though there are more costly versions that can run from 10 to 100 feet. Seem safe enough? Not really, for a lot rides on the notion of 'functional'. Admittedly, one would need very sensitive receivers to pick up the data, so not just any criminal could drive by and scan your house for which jewlery boxes in your trash or closet have tags on them. Admittedly, one would have difficulty in recognizing what the data coming off the tags means: cream cheese containers and grandma's cheesey looking diamond broach both would give off nothing beyond a standard RFID signature. However, a government would have no trouble overcoming these two functional issues.

First, very sensitive receivers are easily manufactured, and are par for the course in electronic intelligence gathering. Second, profit margin always drives standardization. For example, bar codes have been around for a long time. UPC bar codes, however, are far more recent, and "were originally created to help grocery stores speed up the checkout process and keep better track of inventory, but the system quickly spread to all other retail products because it was so successful. But they became ubiquitous only when their was a UPC standard established." Since standardization is the rule for data tracking in consumer goods, RFID will eventually become standardized. Thus, one can tell cheese from diamonds when access to the standardization data base is readily available. A government would easily have such access.

Granting that a democratic government can overcome these hurdles, are there reasons to think a democratic government wants to overcome such hurdles? I think there are, and the current US administration elicits more than trival caution on the matter. (Disclaimer: I'm Libertarian.)

First, the current US administration has held non-citizens without representation and review when it serves their puposes. This is against its postition when it signed on as a UN member. Thus, at least one paradigm example of a democratic government, ours, can be counted on to except itself to the rule of law.

Second, the current US administration has redefined torture when it served its purposes. Thus, the current US administration is ready to subvert its own ideals when the purposes of a small minority of powerful leaders find it practical for politically expedient ends. No doubt other US administrations have arisen and will arise to continue such subversions of self-proclaimed ideals

Third -- and here is where the opening discussion with the my physicist friend ties in -- the current US administration is the least open ever to the results of science and to the advice of its own scientific advisors. As even the conservative news magazine US News and World Report noted,

  • "To date, more than 6,000 scientists—including 49 Nobel laureates and 154 members of the U.S. National Academies of Science—have signed the UCS statement ["Restoring Scientific Integrity in Policymaking"]. They charge, among other things, that the Bush administration has manipulated scientific advisory committees, altered and suppressed reports by government scientists, and misrepresented scientific knowledge in contentious areas such as global warming, air pollution, and reproductive health."
I think a couple of terms, an old-school poltical one and a new-tech data mining one, need be reviewed here for analyis purposes.

  1. Fascism is a system of government marked by centralization of authority under a dictator, tightly monitored socioeconomic controls, suppression of the opposition through terror and censorship, and typically a policy of belligerent nationalism. WWII varieties through in racism, but the oppression of any inconvenient group for political puposes will serve.
  2. Informatics is "research on, development of, and use of technological, sociological, and organizational tools and approaches for the dynamic acquisition, indexing, dissemination, storage, querying, retrieval, visualization, integration, analysis, synthesis, sharing (which includes electronic means of collaboration), and publication of data such that economic and other benefits may be derived from the information by users from all sectors of society. [This definition is taken from the President’s own 'Committee on Advisors on Science and Technology'.]
What would happen if we combine these into a political taxonomy appropriate for our times? "Informatical Fascism" does have a nice ring to it. Some comment on a couple of points is required.

A dictator is a minority of one, and short of frothing hyperbole, that certainly is not at issue in the US. Yet the centralization of data acquisition for the needs of the disproportionally politically powerful few, for the needs of a governmental minority with a singular, unified power-enhancing mindset -- this would effectively serve as a new kind of facism, a distributed dictatorship.

Consider it carefully -- what could be more appropriate in our time as a new governmental oppression schema? We have indeed come to appreciate the profound difference between computing and distributed computing. So now we must come to appreciate the difference between a dictatorship and a distributed dictatorship. In fact, I think the Bush administration is unique in the being the first distributed dictatorship, since it is the first both to have such a unified mindset about certain kinds of political goals and to have such coordinated informatic technology at its disposal. It will not be the last administration to have such abilities, and I do not believe it is a particularly effective one.

But I do believe there will be something akin to a Moore's law of political power that arises when similarly united, power-grabbing administrations arise in the future. Not every, nor even the next administration need be so united, but whatever ones do appear will learn the lessons from the past, and will reap the benefits of advancing power in computational delivery of information about its citizenry (and about the citizens of other lands.)

Moreover, since the US is first in line at the technology buffet, it might just be the only cyber-leviathan that ever need get fed.


At 10:51 PM, Anonymous Grue Hair Man said...

First I'll say I'm sorry to see this sort of fanaticism coming from you.

There seem to be some errors in your analysis of RFID. There are 2 types of RFID, active and passive. Passive are by far the most popular (ever peel those pink tags off CD's after leaving the music store?). Passive RFID works by backscattering a signal sent by the scanner, with the ID attached. These have a fairly low range (1-3 meters) and won't easily be read from a box truck on your street. The reason is that the signal must be sent from the truck (which would be detectable) and has to be reflected all the way back to the source without interferance from wires, pipes, metal doors, window screens, etc.

This is precisely why new passports which include RFID will have a lead lining in the jacket.

Now, there is some fact to a truck being able to detect the 'active' RFID devices, there is also work being done to require the scanner to authenticate itself to the RFID device (eg., so that your RFID powered carkey can't be read by someone scanning your purse)

Second, the comparison of UPC to RFID is erroneous. UPC has a very small namespace and is specifically made so that objects are *not* uniquely identified. That means everytime you see a specific barcode its probably the same brand and flavor of chips, but chances are not the exact same bag. Since the namespace is small its not very hard to keep a database of UPC codes and what products they belong to.

RFID is another beast altogether. Since the namespace is very large (2^96 or 7.92 x 10^28) the chances of any centralized database with every single identity is pretty small. Standardizing on RFID doesn't mean the same thing as standardizing on UPC. RFID is a technology (not a new one btw) and UPC is a protocol where each digit has a specific meaning, such as the first three being the products country of origin.

I'm a fan of RFID, it means my grocery stores get their stock in on time, I don't have to stop for toll booths, I can start my car without my key and I never have to wait in line at the checkout.

I find it somewhat disturbing that you jump from the existance of a consumer product to full blow fascism; even if this sort of abuse were technologically possible what are the chances of it happening before 2008? If the accusations you cite are important enough to the people don't you think the next election will address that?

This sounds like the same sort of grumbling I'd have heard when social security numbers were instated, had I been alive. That was 70 years ago, how have social security numbers been abused in the last 7 decades?

At 5:22 PM, Blogger Joey said...

Brint: Here's a little informatics at work. More or less, this site gives in depth statistics on who is looking at your site, specifically a myspace profile. Users are able to the visitors' IPs. They recently shut down the service out of fear of being sued, and spending time in jail...and not the Martha Stewart jail. We're talking OZ-esque at best sans a narrator.


At 5:24 PM, Blogger Joey said...

Correction: Users are able to "see" the visitors' IPs.



At 12:55 PM, Anonymous tim said...

Here's an interesting story about RFID hacking.


Post a Comment

<< Home