Nowhere to hide

Beginning on page 12 of this issue, we have a report on RFID, a tool for tracking customer’s purchases—and also for tracking the customers themselves. Corporations have happily lied to the public about their testing and gradual implementation of these techniques.

The corporations belittle the importance of their plans with weasel words like those of Christi Gallagher of Wal-Mart: “We don’t anticipate each item in the store being tagged for 10 to 15 years.” Note that this is not the same thing as saying they won’t do it. It’s like a casino owner who says he doesn’t anticipate shutting down, and then does, or a politician who says he doesn’t anticipate running, and then does.

Gallagher also says that critics of RFID “may not fully understand the technology.” Every bit of evidence suggests that it’s Gallagher and other corporate officials who don’t have a full understanding. They look at the technology through the narrow lens of their corporations’ needs and ignore the broader implications of what they are doing.

“The company is always going to do what will make it money,” says RFID advocate Mark Roberti. And so, because of that constricted view, curbs are needed in allowable applications for RFID. Roberti complains that critics have not named a single person whose privacy has been invaded by RFID. Precisely—they are trying to get out in front of the problem before the threat is a reality.

In the best of worlds, Visa and Mastercard would have informed customers of what RFID is, of what its implications are, and of its plans to implant them in credit cards, and then offered cardholders the choice of cards with or without implants. Instead, they skipped over all those steps and started implanting.

It is not the corporations’ job to protect consumers. We might wish they would show the responsibility to do so, but we should not expect it. For that, we need government to act, and the prospects aren’t good.

For decades, members of both major political parties have been, at best, indifferent to privacy issues. The votes for the PATRIOT Act were bipartisan.

Traditional conservatives like Barry Goldwater have been better at opposing privacy threats than have social conservatives who believe the government can be used to police religious and sexual issues.

Democrats, possibly because of their pro-government orientation, have been active in eroding privacy, such as the use of the Social Security number as a universal identifying numeral. As a young Nevada assemblymember, Harry Reid cosponsored legislation to put the SSN on Nevada driver licenses. As Nevada secretary of state, Frankie Sue Del Papa ordered county officials to require the SSN on county voter registration forms.

Every citizen has a stake in this issue. As Aaron Sorkin and Pat Caddell have written, “[In the] ‘20s and ‘30s, it was the role of government. The ‘50s and ‘60s, it was civil rights. The next 20 years it will be about privacy—the Internet, cell phones, health records, and who’s gay and who’s not.”

In the case of civil rights, government didn’t act until a threatened citizenry demanded it. Up to now, groups like librarians and bookstore owners have fought this battle. Citizens need to join it, to demand that credit card companies offer choices, to require that stores label implanted products and remove the implants at the checkstand. The day of politicians as leaders is past. The public must lead the politicians.