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Some Feedback on Implantable RFIDs

Apparently, my editorial in the January issue titled  Your Right Arm, Please• touched a tiny nerve in several of our readers. Quite a few took time out from their busy schedules to let me know just how they felt about implantable radio frequency identification devices (RFID)s. Most questioned the need to implant such devices in humans; they considered it an invasion of privacy. Reader remarks that follow have been edited for brevity.

Here's what a senior electrical engineer had to say.  I think this implant chip idea is exactly what we do not need. If it were to succeed, it might well turn out to be the largest violation of our privacy that has ever existed. Any data stored in a supposed 'secure database• is not secure at all. If this system were to go into effect, it would only be a matter of time until someone was able to break into that database. All it would take is a very sophisticated hacker or a corrupt employee. The company's claims about being able to protect your identity from theft are just totally bogus.• 

Another reader from Cleveland, OH, thought RFIDs had some merit, but in the end they would be misused.  I believe you have correctly identified that almost every technology is a double-edged sword. Certainly, the RFID is an excellent example. It is both a good idea and a very bad one. It could, if implemented, save lives. It has the very strong potential for abuse. My own feeling is that the abuse potential exceeds the rewards. The  bad guys• of society will figure out a way to gain access and profit from the information on the chip. The chip also has the even worse potential for government abuse. 

Sensing the inevitability of the situation after all, the technology already exists and is being deployed another reader had this to say:  Sadly, my first reaction is that implantable info chips or their equivalent are inevitable as world population escalates and with it the need for controls as perceived by the ruling oligarchies. At the risk of sounding like a conspiracy theorist, I see this as a logical consequence of technology already well developed for precisely the purpose of control, no matter how it may be represented. 

One of our editorial contacts in Pennsylvania was really vocal in his dislike for this technology.  Yeah, I can see some benefits,• he said,  but, boy, does this reek as something to be abused and to cause abuse. The Information Age has brought us new comforts and productivity. It also has brought us new dangers.• 

A chief engineer from Ashland, OR, wondered why this technology was needed, especially since our old-fashioned identification methodology still works well. He remarked,  We already have a built-in ID that is almost good enough for most purposes and that is our fingerprints. Bolstered with a few other biometrics, and entering a PIN, we would have no need to head into the risky territory you describe. Most importantly, I must give my consent to have my fingerprints read by a scanner; it cannot be scanned by a walk-by heister. 

So, just how secure are RFIDs? Maybe not very if the news item that crossed my desk the other day is any indication. It seems that some students at Johns Hopkins reverse engineered the 40-bit encryption code developed by Texas Instruments and used in antitheft systems for automobiles and Mobil Speedpass. They were able to initiate a brute-force attack on all the possible keys inside an RFID.

Paul Milo
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