Pass the chips

For information on the status of Sen. Simitian’s bills to regulate the use of RFID tags, go to

It seems the “chip” is already everywhere, even in Hollywood. The plot in Harrison Ford’s recent movie Firewall turns on a chip: When his family gets taken hostage by Men with Guns, Ford’s character has a revelation that he’ll be able to find them—eureka!—because of the electronic tracking “chip” he’d embedded in the family dog.

Of course, “pet chips” were just the start. Today, the use of RFID technology (radio-frequency identification) has exploded, as a high-tech step-up from barcodes. The teeny-tiny computer chips are basically radio transmitters encoded with information about a product or person that can be read at a distance.

Instead of immediately jumping in with a Big Brother rant, let’s admit up front that there are undeniable pluses to this technology. Bay Area commuters who use FasTrak move speedily through toll areas and bridges thanks to RFID devices in their cars. If you’re lucky enough to drive a Toyota Prius, your keyless car recognizes you because of an RFID tag. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s tags on pharmaceutical shipping containers reduce counterfeiting and theft. And get this: microwave-oven makers are developing ways to get their appliance to read RFID tags on food packaging so as to determine how long to cook any given product, e.g. no more burnt popcorn.

But something may yet be burning. Strange bedfellows—like the ACLU and the Gun Owners of California—have united in their opinion that RFID tags provide a welcome mat for identity-theft criminals and constitute a real-and-present threat to privacy. It’s true the proliferation of RFID technology has hit a bit of a slide lately, with the Department of Homeland Security recently announcing that it would not, in fact, proceed with its plan to implants chips in drivers’ licenses nationwide. But the use of the tags for credit cards, health-care cards and all sorts of identification cards remains a trend, nonetheless.

Like us, state Senator Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, admits he admires the RFID technology in certain uses. But he wants to see reasonable restrictions applied. He’s introduced a handful of good bills—most importantly Senate Bill 28, which would put a moratorium on the use of RFID chips in all drivers’ licenses issued in the state, and SB 29, which would ban public schools from using RFID chips to track, monitor or record a student’s presence on school grounds. Both bills won overwhelming approval in the state Senate and now are routed to the state Assembly. Here’s hoping Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger won’t veto if they eventually come to his desk. (Note: Simitian authored a similar bill last year that indeed was vetoed.)

In an SN&R story a few weeks ago about the legislation, Republican Senator Tom McClintock, R-thousand Oaks, explained the simple reason why he’s supporting the two bills: “Your movements and your behavior are none of the government’s business. Not in any free nation.”

That notion, and a bag of perfectly cooked popcorn, will get you admission to a democracy.