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Creepy RFID Tracking Coming Soon to Human Embryos

Nov 21, 20106 mins
Data and Information SecurityMicrosoftRFID

Tracking via RFID and barcodes will soon start at pre-birth stages when babies are only human embryos.

Some radio-frequency identification (RFID) uses seem cool, while others seem downright creepy. We’ve previously seen that RFID can be used to track people from the cradle to the grave, but now there are plans to start tracking at pre-birth when babies are only embryos.

Spanish researchers from the Department of Cell Biology, Physiology and Immunology at Barcelona University are perfecting a system to individually tag and track mouse embryos with silicon barcodes. RFID tags to improve traceability of reproductive material in mice seems fine, but the researchers do not intend to stop there. The press release stated, “Researchers recently received authorization from the Department of Health of the Government of Catalonia to begin testing the system with human oocytes and embryos from several fertility clinics in Spain.” As the Tech and Law blog asked, “Are the barcodes going to be removed after birth? Can they be?”

RFID technology will only continue to increase. ABI research predicts revenue for RFID systems to grow more than 16%, expecting the RFID market to make about $5.3 billion by the end of 2011. I’m not saying all RFID is bad because some of the emerging technology seems to border on cool instead of creepy. RFID systems can help keep hospital employees safe. Austria’s University Hospital uses RFID-based alarms to call for help in emergency rooms and psychiatric wards when patients become too aggressive. RFID also has the potential to save lives.

University of North Carolina researchers implanted RFID tags in surgical sponges that, if left behind in a patient, could cause infections that may require additional surgery. Sponges mold into different shapes and become the same color as the fluid absorbed, making them difficult to see. The RFID sponges were used in 1,600 operations. One sponge was detected in one operation in which manual counting of sponges was correct.

PSFK reports on some unusual RFID technology to be used after death from a person’s grave. The E-tomb concept is high-tech tombstone, equipped with solar panels and Bluetooth. It can be uploaded with tweets, blog posts and other personal information from websites, so visitors can access the information from RFID-enabled smartphones. Rosetta Stone is another application for RFID after death. This RFID memorial tablet can store 1,000 words and an image which can be installed on the tombstone. It is supposed to last more than 3,200 years.

RFID is used to track members of the animal kingdom, such as determining if honeybees are in trouble. One RFID system tracks environmental changes within hives so beekeepers will know when to intercede to keep the insects healthy.

Somark Innovations developed RFID ink tattoos that are used to identify laboratory mice. At one point, there was talk of using the RFID tattoo for cattle and then humans. Co-founder Mark Pydynowski had said the ink was safe for humans, but when I emailed him with questions about a quote linked on Somark’s site, he did not reply and the link disappeared off the company website. Thankfully for the Internet, the LiveScience report still exists. Pydynowski said the RFID tattoos should be used on soldiers. “It could help identify friends or foes, prevent friendly fire, and help save soldiers’ lives. It’s a very scary proposition when you’re dealing with humans, but with military personnel, we’re talking about saving soldiers’ lives and it may be something worthwhile.”

RFID tattoos on soldiers seem like a terrible plan and pointless venture to me. Tracking people with RFID has the potential to be exploited. Tracking people is where RFID seems creepy and too invasive to privacy.

Some schools use RFID to track students‘ attendance, record meal choices, and to check if students ride the school bus. The EFF calls the invasive tracking of preschoolers “scary” with the potential to be misused.

The Guardian Weekly reported that nearly 150 maternity units in hospitals worldwide use active RFID wristbands on babies to prevent swaps or kidnapping. As long as parents have a choice, then okay, but this type of security theater should not become mandatory. In France, people had major privacy invasion issues and plans to RFID tag babies in nurseries were dropped. About 300,000 babies were fitted with RFID bracelets in 2009. In Portugal and Brazil, laws were passed to require RFID tracking of newborns.

If tracking with RFID is safe and secure then why are there sometimes consequences for people who opt not to share their information?

Many ski resort lift tickets contain RFID which was originally meant to help skiers move through the chair lift gates faster. According to ESPN, “Aspen Skiing Co. will allow guests to attach a credit card to season passes, and Vail Resorts is using RFID to power its new social media application, EpicMix, which tracks vertical feet and terrain skied by users via the lifts they ride.” Ski instructor and identity theft expert Jon Lawson created Ski Pass Defender to protect snow riders’ privacy. “RFID is an open structure. It was never meant to be encrypted or to have safe data on it,” he told ESPN. Lawson had worked as a ski instructor at Vail Resorts for 17 years, but management told him to shut down Ski Pass Defender, sign a code of conduct, or hit the road. Lawson took a new job at a different ski resort.

Is it really a good idea to start tracking human embryos? Using RFID to track products or to monitor inventory is fine. Even tracking livestock seems harmless, but applied toward tracking people, RFID seems creepy.

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ms smith

Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.