Katherine Albrecht and Liz McIntyre
Spychips: How major corporations and government plan to track your every move with RFID
Nelson Current, 2005
270 pages, hardcover, $24.99
ISBN 1-5955-5020-8
Reviewed by Gary McGath
Copyright 2007 by Gary McGath

Technology is always a two-edged sword. Advances in cheap electronics make it easy for us to communicate in ways that were once impossible, bypassing censorship and mainstream information sources. But they also make it easy to spy on people. A simple device, the radio frequency identification (RFID) chip, opens great opportunities for "smart" objects that can interact -- and simultaneously opens a Pandora's box of threats to our privacy.

Spychips looks through Pandora's box in detail. RFID is a rapidly changing field, so even a 2005 book is already getting outdated, but authors Katherine Albrecht and Liz McIntyre also operate the site spychips.com, which provides more updated information. The book is still a good introduction to the risks of RFID.

There are lots of those risks: personal identification by association with possessions, tracking of people's movements, even the possibility of injecting people with a permanent transponder (the injectable device exists and has been used on a few people). The businesses and politicians behind the technology have been keeping as low a profile as possible, even when that means deceiving people. The book names companies and politicians, and tells us what they've been up to.

At the same time, there are problems with the book. These start with the title; the authors persistently refer to RFID chips as "spychips," regardless of use. They draw no line between legitimate and illegitimate uses, and dismiss all claims of benefits to the general public as "spin." The fact is that there are clear benefits to the consumer from automated inventory tracking through RFID; misplaced items are more easily located and costs are kept down. The problem comes when someone can read RFID beyond the point of sale and in other invasive ways.

The authors' proposal is that just one legal requirement be placed on RFID chips; that if they're given out to people, the recipients should be told about it. This would be a reasonable law, and there's progress on this front. The California legislature passed a reasonable-sounding bill last year to protect personal information in RFID chips, which however was vetoed by Governor Schwarzenegger.

The authors are technically knowledgeable and don't make exaggerated claims; my concern is more with their rhetoric. Katherine Albrecht is a very good and rational speaker, and comes across much more persuasively in person than the book does. The use of Revelation 13:16-17 in a chapter heading (the bit about everyone being required to have the mark of the Beast) made me cringe, even though it's a very appropriate literary allusion. So did a couple of suggestions that the radio waves from the devices pose a health hazard; if they do, we should be panicking over cell phones and walkie-talkies, not over the much weaker waves from RFID.

My recommendation is a bit ambivalent. If you're concerned about the risks of RFID and want to learn more, this is a good book to start with. But if you're going to give it to someone else, you might think carefully about whether it's more likely to engage him or put him off.

Last revised March 8, 2007

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