They say “Clothes make the man”…what happens when “Clothes reveal everything about the man”?!?
Emergence of RFID Microchips in Clothing (Part 1)
HLSensory Overload: We’re Everywhere You’re Going To Be
Editor’s Note: This is Part 1 of a 2-part series on the Emergence of RFID Microchips in Clothing. Part 2 can be found here: https://medium.com/@hlsensoryoverload/i-d-rather-go-naked-343c5722a712
Imagine walking into a store you have never previously visited and a clerk walks up to you and asks, “How are those size 36 Dockers pants working out for you? Would you like another pair — maybe this time in charcoal color?” Well you’re not wearing Dockers pants and you’ll be damned if you have ever met this clerk. So, how does he know that you previously purchased size 36 Dockers pants a year ago?!?
Most people have heard of the term “spyware”, which is essentially any technology that helps in gathering information about a person or organization without their knowledge. The most harmful forms of spyware can collect, use and distribute your most personal information, like banking passwords and credit card numbers. But what about “spy wear,” which allows your clothing to spy on you? Some clothing manufactures are putting more than wash-and-wear labels into clothing labels. And most importantly, when you buy an article of clothing, are you consenting to be tracked and accounted without your knowledge any time you wear that article of clothing? If an undercover policeman gave you a free t-shirt that could track your movements when you wore it, would that be legal?
RFID, which stands for Radio Frequency Identification, are tiny inexpensive sensors that can be attached or embedded into almost anything, including clothes or clothing labels. The labels are useful for inventory control, but also have potential for tracking and monitoring consumers.
According to the RFID Journal, the devices “range from the size of a grain of sand to a brick. The size depends on whether the tag uses a battery to broadcast a signal or simply reflects a signal back from the reader.” There are various types of RFID tags. The tags installed in clothing are typically passive, which have no battery, but can be “turned on” by an outside source. This is the same technology used by Easy Pass tolls on the freeways. These tags can be scanned by anyone with a scanner tuned to the corresponding signal. This signal — pulsing form the RFID chip — cannot be turned off, even if removed from the clothing. These tags provide a potent method for tracking people as they walk sales floors. More information on this technology can be can be accessed at: http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748704421304575383213061198090
RFID tags are different from UPC or bar codes included on merchandise because they are always on, are not removed at point-of-sale, and need not be visible or even identified in the clothing. These reasons are why there is such growing concern over the tracking and surveillance aspects of these tags. The tags are not always easily removed and the existence of them is not necessarily made known to the consumer. According to the article, “Researching RFID’s Surveillance Potential,” RFID tags are a significant leap in technology because they are easily read from a longer distance. The tags do not have to be visible to be read, emit no signal until activated, and the RFID readers can be easily placed almost anywhere, such as entryways, exits, elevators, and tollbooths . The RFID tags can be scanned transparently. These features make RFID a potential tool for surveillance.” Further information on the application of RFID can be accessed here: http://www.rfidjournal.com/articles/view?1765
RFID tags are currently used extensively for inventory management and control in manufacturing and logistics, but as the cost of this technology has decreased, the tags have found their way into more and more applications, such as consumer products. The continued use of these tags in clothing, for example, is projected to expand significantly. According to a tech market research paper, three times as many clothing items had RFID tags by the year 2014 and although, “Previously limited to a small number of large-volume pilot tests, adoption of the item-level RFID is beginning to permeate throughout the apparel sector and is increasingly evolving into full-scale implementations. While installations at Marks and Spencer in the UK, American Apparel in the US, and Charles Vogele in Switzerland remain the largest contributors to the market growth, scores of companies are now in various stages of implementation. RFID in fashion apparel is undoubtedly here and now.”
As this technology becomes cheaper, more powerful, and more ubiquitous, it will be used in more and more consumer goods, and those same consumers will be tracked and monitored through readers placed in their paths. Should manufacturers be allowed to do this without the knowledge and consent of the purchaser? Should consumers have a right to know if articles they are buying are outfitted with locator beacons, and should they be allowed to demand that they be disabled when the article is purchased? If consumers don’t demand this right, the manufacturers sure aren’t going to offer it.