Privacy wingnuts

I’ve been looking for a classic example of so-called, self-appointed “privacy advocates” gathered by the press going off the deep-end (if you have any, please send them to me).

And then this dropped in my lap: a reputed outcry by these putative privacy advocates against Wal-Mart putting RFID tags on pants.

What could possibly violate our privacy with tracking pants in a store to make sure there aren’t too many extra-large sizes on the shelves? (That was my experience with Wal-Mart when I tried to buy sweats before my surgery; I wish they’d restocked the mediums.)

Well, say the advocates the Journal found: “While the tags can be removed from clothing and packages, they can’t be turned off, and they are trackable. Some privacy advocates hypothesize that unscrupulous marketers or criminals will be able to drive by consumers’ homes and scan their garbage to discover what they have recently bought.”

Yeah, and then what? So they find out that I bought 33/34 jeans. And with that precious personal data they will do what? Blackmail me because I’m no longer the svelte 32 I once was? Sell me illegal diet aids? Sell me ice cream? Target advertising for medium jockeys to me? Subject me to public ridicule as a pencil-necked geek?

Don’t the reporter and editor at the Journal stand back and laugh at the absurdity of this worry? Don’t they ask the next, obvious question: “Yeah, and…?” Isn’t that their job?

Ah, but they report more and find further cause for worry:

“Some privacy advocates contend that retailers could theoretically scan people with such [encoded] licenses as they make purchases, combine the info with their credit card data, and then know the person’s identity the next time they stepped into the store.”

And that would be worth the trouble and risk for the store how? That would give them more data than they already have from credit cards and other means?

So often, articles calling on “privacy advocates” leave them unnamed — anonymous and private, you understand. The Journal digs up one Katherine Albrecht, “founder of a group called Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering and author of a book called ‘Spychips‘ that argues against RFID technology.” Group? Just how many people go to her meetings? And does the book come with tin-foil underwear? The “group” was founded to oppose grocery-store loyalty cards. Yes, we see the damage they have done to countless lives.

Her own site says that she has “earned her accolades from Advertising Age and Business Week and caused pundits to label her a PR genius.” I dare say. She next got the Journal to swallow her silliness.

Listen, I’m all for privacy. I’m working hard to define it in my book on publicness. I will vigorously defend the need and right to control one’s information. There are plenty of serious and difficult issues to discuss. But this kind of idiocy does not serve the cause. It only finds a spy under every leisure suit. In the long run, it turns the cause of privacy into an object of ridicule. And that’s wrong.

But this is often the case with technology and privacy. Technology spawns fears — and worries these advocates — because it introduces change and it’s really change that they fear. Here’s a tidbit from my manuscript illustrating the point:

* * *

Alan F. Westin, in his influential 1967 book Privacy and Freedom … found many devices to fear: LSD “may greatly affect the individual’s daily personal balance between what he keeps private about himself and what he discloses to those around him” and could again be used for government surveillance. Westin worried about radio pills, miniature transmitters, and even about fluorescent powders and dyes—not to mention radioactive substances—that could be applied to “hands, shoes, clothing, hair, umbrella, and the like, or can be added to such items as soap, after-shave lotion, and hair tonic” to track the unsuspecting person.

Secret, miniature cameras, infrared film, microminiature microphones the size of match-heads, battery-operated tape-recorders, hidden “television-eye” monitoring, telephone tapping, “truth measurement” by polygraph tests, personality testing, brain-wave analysis, dossiers of personal data, and the means to steam open envelopes and measure TV audiences—these all concerned him. He speculated about “invisible magnetic-ink tattoos [that] might be applied (for example, to babies at birth)” and transmitters that could be implanted and “wireless, battery-operated television ‘eyes’ the size of buttons,” not to mention U-2 spy cameras from above as well as the ability to read brain signals.

Westin warned of the dangers of computers. In 1966, he wrote, there were 30,000 computers used in the U.S., 2,600 of them in the federal government. What happens, he asked, when we come to the day when “computers in the field of health will eventually establish total medical profiles on everyone in the country ‘from the hour of birth’ and updated through life. Each record will be almost instantly accessible to medical personnel.” Oh, if only.

Westin listed his fears of technology’s impact on privacy 45 years before you read this. How many of his dreads came to life? Few if any, I’d say. That is not to mock him nor even to diminish his warnings, only to put the fears technology fosters into context as we grapple with the concerns attached to our more-modern sciences.

* * *

LATER: I looked at all the coverage I could find on Google News and I found but one piece that, like me, dared to question the “Cassandras of the privacy movement.” CNBC’s Dennis Kneale wrote:

One day RFID tags will permeate the U.S. and global economies, cutting costs for manufacturers and retailers and letting them better respond to consumer tastes. A whole new stock-sector boom could loom as well, in companies that cash in on this inevitable tech trend.

That is, unless the Privacy Police gets in the way. . . .

Um, so what is it I should fear that Wal-Mart will do with this new data horde showing that I just bought a pair of boxers? (Alright let’s stipulate: We’d be less keen on Wal-Mart’s knowing we just bought Spanx.)

The privacy guys always do this—raise well-intended but fear-provoking possibilities at the advent of most any new, promising technology. It is part of what the 1990s Internet sage, Nicholas Negroponte, called the “demonization of bits.” If a salesperson follows us around a store watching our purchases, fine; but use technology to do it and suddenly it’s Orwellian.

Playing the privacy card seems a bit antiquated in this exhibitionistic era of gleefully revealing your inner-most foibles and fetishes to potentially millions of other equally indiscreet folks on Facebook.

: LATER: RFID Journal blasts “privacy nonsense” around chips.

: UPDATE: The WSJ’s RFID expert believes that the chips are a fulfillment of an end-time biblical prophesy. Did I say wingnuts?

  • As I recall, there used to be people opposed to “products being defaced by barcodes” for much the same reason as people are against RFID tags.

    These are the same people who want the “Radio 4 theme” back, and also this lot of nutters – (comments) – who think that a minor change of layout to a website is the end of civilization.

    In the end, they do themselves more harm than good as they just get ignored.

  • simoncrobinson

    Do you need to edit/punctuate this passage
    and the means to steam open envelopes and measure TV audiences.

    Good post tho

    • Right. Thanks. It’s an early draft and I need all the help I can get. And I get it by being public, by the way.

  • AN

    You are missing out the most obvious – determine which house to rob. By scanning for RFID, the thieves can find out recent big ticket purchases, estimate wealth, etc.

    I believe that what is public should be public. Earlier what was public was also anonymous and unrecorded. But no longer. Increasingly, our actions in public are being recorded and soon we will loose our anonymity too.

    Yes, knowing that they are not being recorded and identified emboldens criminals, but it also emboldens people to stage protest against government and corporate misconduct.

    You also miss out that as government across the world is using technology to remove privacy for citizens, they are increasingly using law to regain privacy. It is illegal to photograph police in 3 US states.

    • TomR

      Thieves have a lot of better methods to determine their targets than RFID scanning.

      • AN

        No. First, wireless makes snooping easier. Second, you can find out who has purchased expensive items and who has not.

    • Well, by that standard, then having a Wal-Mart pants RFID in the garbage is pretty good insurance against getting robbed: Not much disposable wealth here. Keep looking for the Abercrombie tag.

      • AN

        RFIDs are not going to be limited to pants sold by Wal-Mart. They will be on every single item that will be sold by every single retailer.

        Moreover, why can’t the retailer deactivate the RFID once the item has been sold? It doesn’t serve any purpose to them after sale.

    • Amy

      How is this any easier than thieves waiting in the Best Buy parking lot and following the guy home who they just saw load a big screen TV into the back of his truck?

  • Jeff,

    excellent post! I have a few questions.

    My American colleague Jay Curry once told me that his sister-in-law used to receive a phone call from the lingerie people at her favourite department store every year just before the sale season started. As a loyal customer she was given the opportunity to buy items in her what Jay called “not unpleasantly deviating size” at the reduced price before the general public. When he asked whether she didn’t consider the telemarketers using this type of information to be an invasion of her privacy, she replied “privacy? this is service, man!”.
    This happened about 25 years ago at the emergence of telemaketing…

    My point: isn’t the discussion of the boundaries between privacy and service of all times?
    Isn’t it caused by the right hand side of the bell curve which represents the reaction of any market to the launch of any new product or service?
    And aren’t these reactions therefore a statistical and thus unavoidable certainty?
    Shouldn’t we then rather discuss ways of dealing with them instead of opposing them?
    And how can we deal with them?

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  • I think it’s OK for people to be worried about RFID, not that such fears are rational, but because worry and fear are important parts of the process by which people learn and adjust to their surroundings.

    I think privacy advocates are no more worthy of mockery than the elderly woman who obsesses over plastic outlet covers, not because she’s afraid of electrocution but because she’s concerned about electricity spilling out onto the floor.

    It’s irrational, sure, of course, obviously. But I don’t see how it’s any more rational to expect to integrate pervasive new technologies into societies without also introducing these kinds of fears.

    Acceptance of fear of technology may drastically limit the pace at which a society can adopt changes, so I think it’s reasonable to anticipate most societies becoming less fearful of rapid subtle transformations. And this, perhaps is my irrational fear: not only that a day is dawning when people will no longer question the roles new technologies plays in their lives, but that such non-suspicion will turn out to be a very bad thing.

    • But we sure as hell shouldn’t formulate policy around that silly and wrong old lady and that’s what is happening here.

      • Eric Gauvin

        Your criticism of the self-appointed “privacy advocates” as “wingnuts” seriously lacks credibility coming from a self-appointed “privacy expert” who seeks to ridicule those he thinks are “wingnuts” in order to make his point.

    • Eric Gauvin

      But remember Professor Jarvis is looking specifically for “wingnuts” as part of his research for his exciting, new book project: Private Parts. This is not about being reasonable…

      • Thank you, Eric. And please note that this is my dogged critic, Eric, saying this, which only makes it more credible (well, except that I planted an RFID tag in his pants when he wasn’t looking and it brainwashed him and turned him to my dark side, bwa-ha-ha). But seriously, yes, I’m saying this sort of nutty protest hurts a good and important cause.

      • Point taken. All I really meant is that we should expect introduction of new technology to meet resistance in every case, and that it’s reasonable to plan (even to consider policy…) in light of that resistance.

        And I think we’re basically in agreement on the main point: there may be privacy fights worth organizing resistance for, but RFID isn’t one of them.

  • If these people are so worried about RFID just put them in the microwave for a couple of seconds to kill the tag entirely. Poof, problem solved.

  • Russell Barrett

    “Don’t the reporter and editor at the Journal stand back and laugh at the absurdity of this worry? Don’t they ask the next, obvious question: ‘Yeah, and…?’ Isn’t that their job?”

    Seems this question is asked less and less as the years go by. It’s been replaced by “Who cares? Run it!”

  • RFID chips and privacy are and can and will be a problem. Make fun of pants as much you want.

    I remember a couple years ago, when Bruce Sterling was starting to write and publicly speak about RFID. I shared his uneasiness very early on.

    Wal-Mart is a good example. They started with RFID many years ago in the back-end. Tracking goods. Optimizing infrastructure. But then there’s the consumer. They already are data mining. All stores are, if you use some sort of card.

    Do you want your Wal-Mart to know what you are buying daily? Do you want them to store your Profile? Are you confident these Profiles of individuals are not share with others? What can possibly happen?

    Well stores, like websites or government organisations who are legaly allowed to store some of your data, share data – willingly or not – about you. You can say ‘I don’t care’. Sure.

    Privacy in a digital age is what companies or people choose NOT to know about you. Transparency IS the new privacy IMHO – to a degree. You are, who you interact with. Others vouch for your identity.

    And yes, problems are always on the horizon when identity and identity theft is in play. Legal concerns, but also exposed credit card numbers, exposed heath records, etc etc … the more data we store about individuals online, the more vulnerable people can become … to skilled, organized, ‘bad guys’. And those, fellow Jeff Jarvis fans, those WILL get in your pants.

    twitter: @buckybit

    • Seriously, take this story and tell me what can go wrong with pants. That’s what the story is about. So give me the worst case analysis. What damage can be done by knowing what pants I wear? Especially when you can see them? And consider the difficulty one would have to go through to scan my garbage on the day that the tag happens to be there to determine that I bought those pants. Who would do that? Why? For what nefarious purposes? And what are those nefarious purposes?

      The woman quoted in the Journal story also fought against grocery affinity cards. They’ve been around forever. Show me, please, link me to a story of what damage has been done by them.

      I don’t mean that you don’t like or you find it creepy or you don’t like companies. I am looking for the real damage. Because in that is the essence of whatever law or regulation or code is necessary. What damage exactly are we protecting from?

      Identity theft? Stalking? You bet: dangers. Government surveillance? Something to be controlled, absolutely. But tie those pants to those dangers. I just don’t see the link.

      • 1st – apologies for my spelling errors before (and upfront)
        2nd – I don’t share the same paranoia of Germans, I just live in Germany.
        3rd – pants:

        I see a scenario, where all around your town, you will have shops and stores who get their goods with RFID-chips ‘enabled’. RFID will replace EAN and other standards (like ISBN etc) in the long run.

        Consumer goods will ‘communicate’ with buildings, cars, street signs, your refrigerator … all to your benefit (or so they will say?). Think of augmented reality, ‘geohacking’ and William Gibson.

        Just like today mobile phones communicate via access points as do WLAN connections, there is a lot of money to be made with Access Points for RFID data-mining? Big consumer companies would pay lots of money to track what people buy where, when and how often?!

        All these stores will participate in this grand data-mining scheme and share information between each other and the companies that provide the ‘service’ = maintain the servers that track RFID signal all around your town. Not in every town, not everywhere – but I can see that in consumer “Hot Spots”.

        Think of 4square but for pants, shirts, backpacks, suitcase, juice, coffee-to-go-cup, etc etc…

        This may or may not happen anonymously (without tracking personal profiles) or ‘with’ it. This IS a future scenario that is technically possible today but takes billions of dollars and lots of test-cases.

        So, I concede, your pants are safe – for now. But it takes one guy at one server to hear a ‘ding’ from Jeff’s pants somewhere in the city and his criminal burglar buddies know “He is not at home; he is at xyz”.

        I admit, the latter is a weak man’s pants case in the grand scheme of things. And, yes, I’ve read a lot of Science Fiction in my youth – that’s why I am prepared today, haha :)

        • Well, then, I”m going to have to extend the lesson I learned in Germany’s saunas and go naked. No choice. ;-)

        • Vic

          Naked we came, and naked we will go. But that doesn’t give anyone the right to strip me, either of my privacy, or of my clothes (no, not even my Wal-mart smartypants).

          The problem with your post is really that it is very hard, in advance, to know which doomsayer is a Cassandra and which a Chicken Little. Several of the replies to your blogpost point out that the worry is not Wal-Mart and a pair of pants, but other retailers equally uncaring of a permanent remotely readable tag, once this becomes the norm.

          RFID tags have been remotely activated for a number of years now, which saves the makers (and vendors using them) much moolah (and makes them more practical for their narrow intended purpose) on energy, which is good. What is not good is the lack of an ‘inert’ switch that ensures the devices are turned off permanently once that purpose is achieved ie when you leave the store, your wallet suitably lightened.

          Today Wal-Mart, tomorrow – everyone? Everything?

          Having said which, I agree with you that getting frantic about cheap pants is ludicrous. Getting frantic about doomsayers is equally ludicrous, though, especially the use of such understated venom.

      • John Hunter


        The problem is not with the pants themselves but with the ever increasing encroachment of big brother and the ensuing loss of our privacy. RFID is a tool that accelerates and empowers that loss.

        It’s also not about any single event but rather about the data storage/mining that has been happening for years. RFID will add to this body of data. Lastly it’s about foisting something on the public w/o it’s consent.

        To be sure RFID does have it’s positive aspects as well which I’ll leave it to others to expound on that.

  • Channing Turner

    A thought provoking post, Jarvis. I just have a quick thought to contribute: What about the effect conscious observation has on the actor in your hypothetical?

    The study of privacy is replete with concerns of the “chilling effect” observation has on the actor. Individuals’ actions change when they know others will take note.

    Policy scholars will know this phrase from historic defenses of privacy and free speech. If we know we’re being monitored, we act differently. The loss of crowd anonymity heightens our self-awareness and prevents actions — through fear of reprisal — that arguable contribute to the social good, e.g. whistle blowing.

    While I’m not committed to this idea as a counter to your argument, it deserves examination. In fact, you touch on this very idea in your comment concerning spandex.

    • Well, by that logic, I wouldn’t go into the store because people would see what I buy in the checkout and people would see what I carry and the cashier would see what I buy.

      Guess I’ll have to buy online. Oh, right…

      • Steve

        But if you pay cash, they don’t know who you are.

      • Channing Turner

        No, that’s seems too simplistic.

        We may be working from different understandings of the word “anonymous.” By anonymous, I mean unrecorded in a specific way. A log of items I purchase would be anonymous if there was no connection to myself. But a log tracking my comings and goings, what items I purchase, how long I shop would violate my anonymity.

        Merely being seen in the checkout counter doesn’t destroy anonymity; being recognized and recorded does.

  • chanceofrainne

    For me, it’s not a matter of privacy against stores and marketers. I have a Kroger Plus card, I have a Barnes & Noble card. I know they’re tracking what I buy and sending me flyers and emails based on my purchase habits; that’s not so much of an issue for me. Marketing is marketing, and all they’re doing is using new tech to try to turn a buck. The thievery issue is also more of a red herring to me; I’m not seeing guys running around scanning trash bags to see what you’ve bought and whether it’s worth robbing you. If somebody’s going to rob you, they’re going to do it (or at least try). My issue with RFID is bigger.

    Call me a tinfoil-hatter if you will (it won’t offend me), but I AM a bit paranoid about the government having that much access to me. I don’t want them in my house. And if RFID in retailing develops any kind of list of what people purchase, I’m sure the government will get hold of it eventually.

    And I am also concerned about things like this: Sure, the tags can be removed NOW, but what happens in the future, when they start embedding them in hems? Then you have a tag on you, maybe one you don’t even know about, and it’s got your name on it, and it’s recording where you go. Don’t think they can do it? I had a friend on house arrest for a DUI; her ankle bracelet kept a GPS track of every single place she went when she got out of a 40 foot radius of the receiver. It knew where she was, how fast she got there, how long she was there for, and how fast she got home. As soon as she walked in the door, the receiver took that information and uploaded it to her parole officer.

    Yes, the issue is a removable tag on a pair of sweatpants NOW, but what about in the future, when it’s a copy of “1984” or “Constitutional Rights for Dummies” or something like that? What happens when the government, whose stranglehold on us is getting tighter all the time despite our ever-weakening struggles, knows exactly what you buy every time you spend a dollar, and decides they don’t like what you’ve bought?

    Despite our Constitutionally-guaranteed freedom of religion, what happens when, say, someone buys a copy of the Qur’an and ends up on a terrorist watch list? It could happen easily. Look at the TSA’s no-fly list; there are thousands of totally innocent people who are on that list because of rumors, or because their name is the same as someone who engages in what the government considers ‘questionable behavior’ or simply because they joined a student group like Solidarity that supports socialism.

    Like I said, pooh-pooh me if you will, but I’m afraid the McCarthy era is back with a vengeance, and “terrorist” is the new Communist. RFID is rapidly becoming yet another way for Big Brother to keep a very close eye on you, and that idea makes me very uncomfortable.

    Many of you will say I’m paranoid and I’m wrong. As much as I hate being wrong, this is one time I would really love to be. Because the future that I see looming in front of us is a really scary one that I don’t want anything to do with.

    That’s my two cents, and now I’m shutting up, but if anyone would like to talk to me further, I’m @chanceofrainne on Twitter or rainne[DOT]cassidy[AT]gmail[DOT]com for email or Google Chat.

  • Private Comment

    From today’s NYT magazine

    >>>A University of California, Berkeley, study released in April found that large majorities of people between 18 and 22 said there should be laws that require Web sites to delete all stored information about individuals (88 percent) and that give people the right to know all the information Web sites know about them (62 percent) — percentages that mirrored the privacy views of older adults.

    Privacy: It’s not just for wingnuts anymore.

  • Am I the only one who sees business opportunities here?
    1. Wall-mart can join forces with someone like 4square. Promotions, badges, the whole social schtick.
    2. Offer tinfoil wrappers at the checkout and sell matching tinfoil hats to match.
    3. Build an iPhone app that will tell you where your pants are.
    4. lead coated garbage bags
    VC’s may call my pants….

  • No one seriously believes anyone cares about your pants.
    But what if it was food and water?

    If you live in a hurricane, earthquake, tornado or tsunami zone, it just makes sense to have some food and water stocked up right?

    Would it be okay for the city to go around scanning for stockpiles of food and water after a Big One hit? And asking, with police backup, for some/most/all of your supplies.

    Now what do you think?

  • 99% of people who work in a major city already carry multiple RFIDs: garage entry cards, metro access cards, building access cards and ezpass sensors.

    If RFIDs are really so horrible and such a privacy concern, then why aren’t people up in arms about those RFIDs everyday? I never understood that.

  • Elizabeth

    I don’t know for sure, but don’t you have to be within 10 feet of the tag to scan it?

  • Another perspective

    Did you see this?

    Will you be including this in your book?

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  • Sam Beckett (Seb_or_Sam)

    Breaking News: The Wall Street Journal has discover the internet! Oh my god, the internet as… Adevrtising! And advertising uses cookies! Wow! Maybe next week thet’ll discover what this myserious “link”thing is all about!

    Honestly, I lost the last wavering thread of respect I had left for the Wall Street Journal. And that’s been going down rapidly since Murdoch bought WSJ. Do you realize just how deep of a grave they’ve been digging themselves? Compare the journal as it was 5 or 6 years ago to what they are today It’s absolutely pathetic.

  • Ric

    Jeff – a slight pedantic note … if the “Cassandra” part were true, they wouldn’t be believed. The problem seems to be that they ARE believed :)

    We are adjusting to new and different interpretations/thresholds of privacy, but I think that (unlike some) privacy is far from dead; in fact as more of our life becomes public (and I agree with you that there are significant benefits in a more public life) what we then keep private is MORE important to us than ever. And the big issue is not what is public about us, but who controls it – we need to become the nexus of data about ourselves

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