October 13, 2003

And So It Begins...

Just my personal musings on the impact of technology on our lives:

The Great Wireless Debate seems to be growing multiple branches. There are several new developments that have staunch proponents on either side, and they all seem to have genuinely good reasons for their positions. To put a finer point on it, it's a double-edged sword that cuts both ways.

First, there's the group of parents and students who are suing their local school district for installing a Wi-Fi network. They're seeking class action status and it stems from their concern about the effects of exposing their children to the electromagnetic radiation emitted by the transmitters. The root question to some would seem to be: Does the benefit of the Wi-Fi network outweigh the potential health risks to the children and others in the vicinity? What are those health risks, and what are the rights of people who want to opt-out of something than can most likely only be practically opted out by shutting it down, segregating it, or moving to a different school district?

Next, Wired News also reports that a Mexican company has launched a service to implant microchips in children as an anti-kidnapping device. One foundation estimates that 133,000 Mexican children have been abducted over the past five years. Likewise, I can certainly see both sides of this one. On one hand, it's certainly a worthy goal to increase the odds of finding an abducted child. On the other, RFID (Radio Frequency Identification Device) is already a very controversial technology, due to the great potential for abuse at the loss of our personal privacy. Perhaps an Orwellian reference is a clichéd knee-jerk reaction, but it would be all to easy for Big Brother and others to be monitoring people's whereabouts at key access points (these devices generally have a short range due to the low power). I always have flashbacks to the Enemy of the State movie when I think about this. And then there's the entire debate about RFID transmitters incorporated in the very fabric of our existence -- quite literally, in our clothes. Monitoring and correlating consumer buying habits is just the tip of the iceberg.

Now, such a device could not physically prevent an abduction, as it is purely a tracking mechanism -- LoJack for kids. Like most technology, it has the potential for doing great good. It also has the potential to further erode our expectation of privacy. Extending this to its worst use, perhaps it could even be used by pedophiles to seek out children who are left alone and vulnerable? Thus enabling the very thing it was created to combat? And are we prepared to start "tagging" the population?

Both of the "disagreements" above stem from people's desire to provide something of benefit to others. The school is trying to provide advanced computing services, for better efficiency and more flexibility in education -- in essence, to provide a better education to the students. The Mexican company is offering a device to help make it easier to locate abducted children. Again, both are certainly worthy and admirable goals.

And yet, somehow, I sense a disturbing path of choices that lay before us. Perhaps I've seen too many science fiction movies, but doesn't it always start with technology being developed for noble means that is somehow either subverted for more insidious means or ends, or provides a negative result that no one foresaw? Perhaps it's rather ironic that I just watched Johnny Mnemonic again this weekend (I hadn't seen it since I watched its 1995 theatrical release). If you haven't seen it, it's based on a William Gibson story that portrays a future society where masses suffer from NAS (Nerve Attenuation Syndrome), a severe neurological disease/condition which is caused by all of the technology upon which people have become dependent. With the rise of electromagnetic radiation caused by microwaves, computers, cordless phones, cell phones, cell towers, Wi-Fi networks, etc., one can only wonder at what the cumulative effect will be after several generations. I would really like to see some empirical data on this, and from studies funded independently from either side of these debates.

However, more to the present, it seems that a Wi-Fi network emits far lower electromagnetic radiation than home cordless phones, at least according to the Wi-Fi Alliance spokesman. Of course, the argument here is that no one has no choice when located in a Wi-Fi cloud.

The RFID implant definitely has a choice aspect, and it sounds like the subcutaneous device could be more or less easily removed from the person later, say when the person is no longer a child or desires more privacy. Since they are generally low power devices, I'll take an educated guess that the medical risk is low. The main risk here is to one's privacy. Along the same lines, I for one am not thrilled with the prospect of having numerous transmitters incorporated into my clothing, particularly my under-apparel. Is nothing sacred anymore? Again, on the flip side, if it could help save my life in a medical emergency, then it's worthy of consideration, as strange as it may sound.

Without a doubt, one thing is clear: There are profound arguments to be made on both sides of these debates, and there are no easy answers. However, in our rush to improve the human condition, it is my fervent hope that our haste to find solutions does not result in the converse. Is it just me, or do the ultimate ramifications boggle the mind?

Topic(s):   Other Musings
Posted by Jeff Beard

In regard to the RFID issue, you touch upon, but may have some misconceptions about the nature of RFID tags.

Firstly, RFID tags are entirely passive in nature. They emit no energy in the absence of being scanned by a reader. The reader device sends a signal that both queries the tag and powers the RFID tag for its brief responding transmission. As you state, placing RFID readers in key points would allow tracking of those ID tags.

Secondly, RFID tags, unlike the present day bar codes they are intended to supplant, are particular to individual items. Their key ability is to carry the information that a particular individual item, not a type of item, has been scanned. Their nature is such that a particular item can be linked to your identity by the simple act of purchasing it with a credit card. Your tracked identity wouldn't necessarily be linked to a given pair of shoes, but those shoes with that pair of glasses AND that wallet AND that belt will, in aggregate identify you.

Your mention of movies on the topic of the lack of anonymity misses one which perhaps is the most appropriate to this issue; Minority Report. Think about the scenes in which the billboards target individualized advertising to the fleeing hero by their simple ability to determine his identity. How was this done? Perhaps merely by the very RFID clothing and other personal tags we are discussing.

As regards the RF issues of 802.11 networks, you do not link the comment that power levels for those networks do not rise to those of the much more common cordless phones to the comment that one doesn't have a choice of being within a transmitter area. The link between the two isn't clear, and people are no more able to avoid cordless phones than they are of wireless networks.

Posted by: Jack Holmes at October 13, 2003 10:34 AM