Tracking the trackers

Patents reveal companies’ plans for RFID

Liz McIntyre, the CASPIAN communications director and former bank examiner who co-authored Spychips, spent hours upon hours scouring the U.S. Patent Office Web site for applications that could compromise consumers’ privacy.

“I stumbled on all this RFID stuff,” said McIntyre, who uncovered dozens of patents by big-name companies that sent chills down her spine.

The following can be examined in their entirety at

IBM patent pending No. 20020165758, Identification and Tracking of Persons Using RFID-tagged Items, May 2001

Shoppers’ purchase records would be stored in a transaction database. When that person entered the store a reader would remotely scan an RFID tag carried by the person and identify the shopper by name, demographic or other characteristics. The person’s movements could be monitored through the store, airports, train stations, restrooms, libraries and other areas. IBM’s application goes on to suggest that an income bracket could additionally be inferred “if items are carried on the person are highly expensive name brands, e.g. Rolex watch.” The information could be used “to provide targeted advertising.”

Procter & Gamble’s patent pending No. 20020161651 ,Systems and Methods for Tracking Consumers in a Store Environment, August 2001

Sensors would be affixed in store ceilings, floors, shelving and displays that would read RFID tags on both carts and individual items. The system would measure where a shopper travels in the store for how long, and what he or she picks up and whether or not a purchase results. The information could be used, the application states, “to effectively direct consumers to higher profit margin items.”

Bank of America patent No. 6708176, System and Method for Interactive Advertising, March 2005

This patent (pictured) describes a system like in the movie Minority Report, in which people who come near a kiosk or other advertising venue are recognized via RFID and then show ads targeted to their interests, preferences or demographic.

Philips Electronics patent No. 6677917, Fabric Antenna for Tags, January 2004

Philips, which makes RFID chips and partnered with Benetton in an aborted clothes-tagging plan, has designed a flexible fabric tag that can be embedded into shoes and other items that are worn. The application suggests that placement in the shoe is especially helpful if the RFID “interrogator is located in a floor.”

BellSouth patent-pending No. 20040133484, System and Method for Utilizing RF Tags to Collect Data Concerning Post-consumer Resources, July 2003

This phone company patent proposes a way to sort recyclables but also to examine consumers’ discarded trash to determine where products or junk mail ended up. “This information may be useful to any number of entities, including retailers, manufacturers, distributors and the like,” it states.

Persephone, patent application No. 2004174258, Method and Apparatus for Locating and Tracking Persons, August 2003.

This company, not a major one, lays out areas within the human body where RFID-enabled chips could be implanted in such a way that they could not be removed without surgery, such as in the uterus, gastrointestinal tract, head and deep muscles. It proposes tracking runaways and kidnapping victims this way, but it could also broadcast messages to the person or even deliver an electrical shock.—D.A.