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, 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.”

Bank of America patent No. 6708176, March 2005
This patent 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 shown ads targeted to their interests, preferences or demographic.

BellSouth patent-pending No. 20040133484, 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, 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.