RFID Tags on Your Underwear: No Reason to Panic

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.

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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.

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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.?

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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.