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Kiwicon: RFID (in)securities

Posted on November 27, 2010

We'll be writing some summaries of some of the relevant sessions at Kiwicon - the hacker conference in Wellington.

Anne Galloway from the VUW School of Design presented the keynote speech - RFID (in)securities. RFID tags are the tiny bits of circuitry that nearby scanners can read - such as used in Snapper cards and passports.

She brought a social anthropology view of RFID to a conference full of hardcore geeks and was brave enough to start by defining "discourse" and how it is used to create understanding. She then discussed three popular discourses around RFID:

  • RFID is awesome
  • RFID is evil
  • RFID is fun

RFID is Awesome

Typically the language used is about RFID being easy, convenient, efficient, reliable and secure. It often puts forward a utopian view of the future where the use of RFID-enabled tech means that old problems are removed (waiting in queues) and new possibities are enabled (tracking food from farm to plate). It's normally sold as "real cool amazing tech" with very little explanation of the technology involved.

RFID is evil

"It seems like an ID card but it's called a smart card." - "Brilliant, isn't it?"

In this discourse, RFID is a threat to personal privacy, to our health, and to our human dignity. There is the idea that corporations and governments will be tracking our every move and using that information against us. A lot of the imagery is apocalyptic (666, mark of the beast, four horsemen of the apocalypse) and apparently many people seem to think that the Nazis would have been very keen on it.

While many geeks find the idea intriguing, the general populace finds the idea of having an RFID tag in their body to be totally abhorrent. It's not just a fear of embedded tech - somehow it's much more offensive than a pacemaker.

RFID is fun

Anne talks about the appeal of RFID tags to the hacker mindset - using interesting technology to do interesting things. It's fun because it *can* be hacked.

Some websites:

  • Mediamatic publish resources in how to hack RFID and organise events to show off what they've done.
  • Nearfield create art projects that help visualise RF in our lives.
  • Anne's own project, Counting Sheep:Wool in an Internet of Things, is an attempt help make people understand how RFID works in our world.

Summary

Some more points based on Anne's comments and questions from the audience:

  • The idea, not specific to RFID but partly enabled by it, that we lose our citizenship as a human being and become a set of data records.
  • The differences between our employers forcing us to use RFID tags compared to our government forcing us to do so. One is done to us, the other we do to ourselves (democratically). The two categories call for different arguments for and against them.
  • Talking about how it's being done to us without our realising and without the chance for our input. Extremists might react, but most people know nothing about it.

Posted by Thomas Beagle

Comments (3) Trackbacks (0)
  1. I wish I had been able to attend this presentation. I’ve been interested RFID since I read an article where appparently a few of the larger retailers in the US (Walmart etc) had been found to be putting tags in the shoes they were retailing in order to track return visits to the store etc.

    Obviously if desired they could link the sale to a docket (and potentially a credit card) and then return visits to the store whilst wearing those shoes. Perhaps not a true story but an interesting concept all the same. I havent bothered to check the validity but found it illustrative of what is easily possible.

  2. Thanks so much for your notes on my presentation!

    The Touch Project’s design research can be found at http://www.nearfield.org (no ‘s’)

    And you may also be interested in Rob van Kranenburg’s The Internet of Things: A critique of ambient technology and the all-seeing network of RFID

    I’ll also be posting my slides on my website later this week, along with some related links and some upcoming video work we’ll be doing on communicating these issues to non-technologist audiences.


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