RFID Tags on Your Underwear: No Reason to Panic

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Lots of things
concern me. Wal-Mart’s recent announcement that it would begin inserting
radio-frequency identification devices (RFIDs) to tag certain clothing
items isn’t one of them.

Perhaps it
was an unfortunate choice that Wal-Mart decided it would begin inserting
what it calls "smart tags" on underwear. What, exactly,
does Wal-Mart want to track in your pants? Nothing at all, it turns
out. All that it plans to do with the tags is keep better control
over its inventory.

Some privacy
advocates have expressed concern that the tags "can’t be turned
off" and that they’re "trackable." Well, if the tags
could be turned off in the store, and weren’t trackable, they wouldn’t
help Wal-Mart manage their inventory.

Fortunately,
you can take off the tag without damaging your new pair of underwear.
But that leads to a new concern from some privacy advocates, who
fear that marketing companies will begin scanning your garbage to
track what you’ve purchased by the RFID tags you’ve discarded.

Well, maybe.
But I think the concerns about RFID tags are misplaced. The real
threat RFID poses, as I’ve
written previously
, is their use in identity documents.

Researchers
have shown it’s relatively easy to read data on RFID chips from
a considerable distance. One researcher recently read an RFID tag
from over 200 feet away. It’s also possible to clone the new RFID
chips used in supposedly "ultra-secure" passports. One
researcher even succeeded in replacing his own photo in an RFID-equipped
U.K. passport with one of Elvis
Presley
, and even got a boarding pass for "Elvis"
– 30 years after his death.

And here’s
where the Wal-Mart initiative gets a little scary. Once Wal-Mart
and other stores apply RFID tags to their entire inventory, they
could surreptitiously scan visitors to the store to instantly identify
that person from whatever RFID-equipped identification document
they’re carrying. They could then custom-tailor offers for the visitor
based on past purchasing patterns.

Again, I’m
less concerned by this privacy intrusion particular application
than with others. What happens if you’re in an airport and terrorists
who want to kidnap Americans begin surreptitiously reading RFID-equipped
identification documents to identify U.S. citizens or residents?
Or if an enterprising identity thief figures out a way to match
the data on your identification documents with your credit card
numbers, Social Security number, etc.?

To protect
yourself, consider the following precautions:

  • If you
    carry any identification document with an RFID chip, keep it wrapped
    in foil except when you need to use it. That makes it less vulnerable
    to remote cloning.
  • When you
    check into a hotel, rent a vehicle, or carry out any other transaction
    abroad that requires you to present this document, don’t let it
    out of your sight.

Unfortunately,
I can’t recommend the most effective self-defense mechanism: to
put your RFID passport in a microwave oven and switch it on for
a few seconds. That will destroy the RFID chip, but tampering with
a passport is punishable by 25 years in prison. Compared to that,
identity theft is a small price to pay.

Mark Nestmann is a journalist with more than 20
years of investigative experience and is a charter member of The
Sovereign Society's Council of Experts. He has authored over a dozen
books and many additional reports on wealth preservation, privacy
and offshore investing. Mark serves as president of his own international
consulting firm, The Nestmann Group, Ltd. The Nestmann Group provides
international wealth preservation services for high-net worth individuals.
Mark is an Associate Member of the American Bar Association (member
of subcommittee on Foreign Activities of U.S. Taxpayers, Committee
on Taxation) and member of the Society of Professional Journalists.
In 2005, he was awarded a Masters of Laws (LL.M) degree in international
tax law at the Vienna (Austria) University of Economics and Business
Administration.

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