March 14, 2003
The Sensor Web

Benetton (CNet, Wired and SFGate) will embed radio frequency identification (RFID) chips in the labels of its clothing. Prada does it now, and Walmart, Proctor & Gamble and Tesco (who is designing shelves to read the tags) are thinking about it. These companies want to track inventory in the store, but with a 5 foot range, and the potential to transmit data from one sensor to the next through a series of RFID tags located in many items, the contents of say, your house, could be scanned out front or as you walk near sensors on the street, wearing something from one of these stores. It seems like all benefits are on the business side and very little good is on the consumer/customer/user side (whatever we are this week...). I can't wait for the anti-circumvention lawsuit for removing the tag.

This year, Phillips Electronics will send Benetton 15 million of these sensors the size of a grain of sand that hold about 1k of data, or a paragraph of rewritable text. Phillips has sold a half billion of the chips mostly used in smart cards for transportation systems. What's kind of odd is that Karsten Ottenberg of Phillips Semiconductors said (in SF Gate) RFID tags "could be used for 'customer loyalty' rewards that could earn consumers such benefits as frequent flyer miles, free music downloads or discount coupons." I'm not sure how this would be implemented or what he had in mind, but the only additional information RFID tags might give other than just adding to the aggregated purchase information already collected at the cash register is for the retailer to scan clothing worn into the store or past some other sensors. This seems to contradict his other statement that, "cautioned that the chips will store no data about the customer, and will be essentially useless after the garments leave the store."

A few years ago, this was much more experimental and speculative. Now, in practice, the issues around privacy are staring at us, quietly, and the question is, do we take the fatalist approach, where we allow this to be inevitable and give in to it, or take the communitarian view, where we give up privacy for the good of the community (commercial community?), or do we look at building privacy into the systems that use sensors and collect data, and think about public policy to protect people from the only part that is truly inevitable: the sensor web is here. What we decide or let happen now will as usual, be very hard to change later, as a matter of policy and inertia.

Update 3/17/03: (from Frank/Furdlog) The Boston Globe has an article today on the RFID chip, mentioning CASPIAN (Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering) which is working to create privacy protections against the RFID chip.

Another interesting point: the number of humans will be outnumbered by the number of computing devices. This might already be true now, but sensor technology is different because it is only about invisibly sensing and transmitting over a distributed network, verses a large obvious cpu, on say, someone's desk, that we assume is not invisibly sensing and transmitting, but rather receiving directed input through keyboard/mouse/microphone etc, from a user aware of the system around them. Instead the sensor web will be opaque, blending with our environment, taking data we did not necessarily agree to provide to systems we mostly likely do not control or know about.

Sensor webs of tiny sensor transmitters, either radio or laser, that can communicate with one another and the world about the data picked up in the environment, or pass data from one sensor to another, are being developed for a number of other situations. A small battery in the sensor scavenges energy from light, movement or heat. Some include environmental control sensing to save energy (sensors painted onto the walls), with smart dust (or here) applications. Other ideas floating around include Chemical/biological sensors (Great Duck Island is an experiment currently being conducted in environmental sensing), livestock identification and automated vehicle identification, weapons stockpile monitoring, and defense-related sensor networks (pdf). One idea reported four years ago involved sprinkling Iraq with Smart Dust or dusting a weather system to find out what is happening inside it. Since the military has been paying for a lot of the research, it seems likely they will be a big user of the technology.

Posted by Mary Hodder at March 14, 2003 08:32 AM
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