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We know where you live

Not all technology dreams involve the beauty of innovation. Sometimes, those night visions are downright scary, when nanotechnology and identity reporting float through the subconscious landscape.

I had a dream: There was a store, or shop, not very big but very busy–lines of people going in and out–where you could select a PERFID (PErsonal Radio Frequency IDentification) tagging method. The variety of approaches struck me as ingenious: Tattoo, subdermal chip, false tooth, painted toenail, wristwatch, dog tag, pill or suppository (for internal installation), articles of clothing, ear plug, various body-piercing pieces, jewelry (especially rings), eyeglasses, contact lens, bellybutton button, and, of course, strips of tape.

Thanks to the the wonders of nanotechnology, each and every method uses the body’s own energies (kinetic, chemical, electrical) to power a microscopic transmitter that emits personal data to a radius of up to 20 feet.

Some of the methods of RFID tagging are permanent, and others more in the line of a fashion statement. Naturally, in the United States the selection of the method is up to the individual. Some people, especially women, prefer the less permanent approaches–particularly watches and jewelry. The purpose of this particular store was not so much to sell products containing an RFID (although some were available) but in the registration, installation, and testing of PERFID tags.

One elderly lady had apparently opted for a tag to be implanted in her false teeth. However, she was quite befuddled by the registration form she was required to fill out. She sat down in front of a fairly large touch-screen, and from the way she poked on the surface you could tell she had very little experience with manipulating computer information. In fact, there was obvious difficulty not only in reading the fine print on the screen but with interpreting what the program wanted. Some things in the computer industry never change.

Of course, a very large section of the particular form she was required to complete covered the various legal caveats about the use of the personal information contained therein and the amount of privacy that one could expect from the governmental and corporate entities involved in the propagation of said data. As has been the tradition with software licenses and the opt-out lists of old-time spam, few people pay any attention to such legalistic verbiage, much less give it any credibility. Unfortunately, this lady was actually trying to read the information, clearly an exercise in futility. The computer program running the form was of no help since it was designed to provide some guidance in filling out the form, not in comprehending it.

This lady, like many others I observed in the store, was ill at ease with the mechanics of acquiring the RFID tags, but more interesting was how she was not in any way shaken in her desire to have one installed. This demonstrates the power of modern techniques of persuasion.

From the huge displays that read ONLY YOU CAN PREVENT TERRORISM to the innumerable talk shows that feature people living with and enjoying the benefits of their RFID tags, we’ve all been bombarded the last few years with the messages and images. Even to this day most of us associate the tags with the little girl whose life was saved because she had included medical data about her rare blood type in her tag information. When the mountain lion carried her off one fall day in Colorado, little did she know that her fate would be to appear on national high-def TV. The images of the camera crew rescuing her, literally from the teeth of the catamount, were unforgettable.

Of course, some critics maintained that the whole event was staged, but these days who can tell for sure? In any case it made the forceful point that RFID could save lives. The issue, as it is so clearly presented by the media, is not whether one should always carry a tag, but how much information should be included.

That was why, in my dream, I was surprised when one young man suddenly refused to continue entering information in his registration form. He seemed like a normally intelligent person, no more than the usual amount of hardware hanging from his facial and other bodily appendages. The short hair with slit-goggles over his eyes would have marked him as a college graduate. Still, it was clear from his vociferous reaction that something about the information he was asked to give disturbed him.

As he struck the display screen with his fist (which does little damage, since the bioplastic elements of the screen’s construction are extremely flexible and, to a certain extent, self-repairing), you could see that the underlying operating system must have had some trigger mechanism for its protection. Suddenly but quietly, a small tube protruded from the base of the screen that emitted a tiny dart or pellet (it was difficult to see which) that entered the skin of the young man approximately at waist level. Within seconds the person was no longer violent, although he did leave the store almost immediately.

I supposed that nano-recorders in the walls and the display screen would have sent images of this incident to the proper authorities, although at the time I couldn’t see what transgression had occurred. Unfortunate reactions such as this one are still common, as some people are unhappy with entering their religion, sexual preference, political affiliation, and favorite movies into the PERFID database.

I know there are rumors that some hospitals recently have refused people who are not wearing their tags, and the police in some states have been known to incarcerate people without tags until they can verify their personal information, but these are minor inconveniences in the trend toward universal acceptance. Most of the people in the store were obviously convinced that having a tag was a good thing.

In fact, I picked up on a conversation one of the store patrons was having with a vocalized terminal. He was trying to convince the program that he should have two PERFIDs, one for work and one for home. The sticking point was that the computer insisted that these should be in the form of two physical tags both containing the same information. However the man wanted two tags with different information. He maintained that he was really two different people depending on whether he was at home or at work. He was so convinced that the effectiveness of his tag depended on the completeness and accuracy of the information that he wished to make this distinction a part of the permanent record. Unfortunately, the vocalizing terminal was not attached to a particularly intelligent analytical module. It eventually began replying to all of the man’s questions and comments with, “We appreciate your input and we will be sure to process it appropriately.”

Later, after I awoke from the dream, I was curious that so many of the incidents in the dream highlighted the problems of interfacing human beings with the relatively clumsy instruments of technology. Maybe some people would have called it a nightmare, but I think it was more a cautionary dream about the need to improve our technological capability and the sophistication of the PERFID process. After all, it was only a decade or so ago that we were concerned whether RFID could be universally applied to products, and everybody knows the story of how Wal-Mart became All-Mart as it deployed its RFID-managed stores in every country of the world.

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