A little late night posting before I try to re-regulate my sleep schedule (again). I was checking my Google alerts, which are truly fabulous things I recommend to anyone, and the good Dr. McGee popped up in a blog written by a former student of his, Kipum Michael Lee. Now, before I mentioned the content of Lee's post, let me say, having no clue who this person is, I just spent an interesting half an hour browsing his professional website. He does something called interaction design, which I've never heard of, and appears to be a cool blend of design, architecture, and technology. If you have a few minutes, it's worth checking out - not just for the 12:30am and I'm tired so it's really cool, but because I think we're going to see, more and more, people moving towards these interdisciplinary fields that merge interests. Why choose something boring like philosophy, when instead you can study, say, the philosophical implications of architecture and the psychological and ethical impact that has on residents? (And while I wish I could claim credit for pulling that out of my hat, in reality a former student is studying just that, via the graduate department of architecture at his university.)
Right - I was going to focus. So Kip has a blog. Kip mentioned his former Penn professor (McGee), as well as praise for their ethics curriculum, and that brought it to my mailbox. What was Kip blogging about? It seems the nightclub Baja Beach (two European locations) has decided to forgo VIP cards and instead has gone with VIP RFID chips. They have the RFID tag implanted and it serves as their access to the club, as well as payment for their drinks. Because they are a VIP, it's free club entrance for life, free access to the VIP lounge, and can order their drinks all night long, to have the cost of drinks subtracted from their bank account (linked to the RFID tag) at the end of the night. In addition to bank account information, the tag apparently includes a picture for identification, as well as full name. You can see a full interview with Conrad Chase here, including a rough count of numbers:
Chase considers this something unique, like a tattoo or body piercing - just the next step.
So Kip asks a very typical question, which is not "can we do this" (obviously, we can), but "should we do this"? He raises the point that people with the technology to make things happen do need to be the ones who lead the discussion in the ethical applications of the technology, and then wanders off into a consideration of what it means to be human. Now as something of a devotee of both DIY Biotech and Donna Haraway's A Cyborg Manifesto (warning: postmodern feminist content at that link!), I don't fear the cyborg - I embrace it, and think in many ways we are already there. I do, however, think there are questions to be asked about this RFID implantation technology.
First, and foremost, I don't believe Chase's claims that the information is not accessible outside of the club. There is something on the RFID tag that is being read every time they walk in - something that identifies them. Now it might be that the credit card information of the patrons is left on an in-house server and the RFID tag only provides a number to correspond with the identifying number in that server database, but there is something linking the RFID tag and the credit card to that person. Likewise, there's something on the chip allowing a computer to pull up the person's name and face as they walk in the door.
Privacy advocates are understandably concerned about this - for maybe a couple of hundred dollars, I can easily build a scanner that would allow me to pick up the RFID signals being broadcast from any of these implanted chips. Even if I had to sit in the club itself, to have access to the chips and the servers housing the desired data (names, credit card numbers - assuming none are stored locally), it would be possible to do - and walk out with enough information to have an online shopping spree or three. Identity theft becoming one step easier.
But admittedly, I don't think the nightclub crowd will ever grow large enough that it'd be a worthwhile (and illegal) practice to pursue. Instead, I worry more about the broader social implications. As anyone who is familiar with social networking theory knows (or has read Malcolm Gladwell's book The Tipping Point, trends often move into social acceptance by first beginning on the edges, in a club or other "scene". Once adopted by someone who has social capital in the larger group, whatever was edgy and new suddenly explodes into mass acceptance and popularity. Tattoos, piercings, clothing, all sorts of trends - and what happens when the trend moves to RFID tags that broadcast information to anyone who's listening? Your MySpace, Facebook, homepage, LiveJournal, blog, email, full name, school, gender, sexual preference - any of the information that people willingly put on these social network sites, suddenly on a chip and broadcast not to the internet at large, but the small world in their immediate surroundings.
It's an interesting question, reaching beyond the idea of RFID tags to track children, pets, or your medical data (other currently used applications of the technology). What do you think - the future, or simply overblown fears?