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Sure RFID Tags Are Convenient (2017-02-13)

RFID tag most commonly found in books, image courtesy of wisegeek.com. RFID tag most commonly found in books, image courtesy of wisegeek.com.
Image courtesy of wisegeek.

Thinking back, it's hard to say when I first heard of RFID tags. I had actually bumped into them and even used them long before they were objects with a basic definition of what they were and how they were used all sorted out. The fad of having one embedded under the skin so as not to need to carry identification struck me as so profoundly foolish that I had to doublecheck the story with better documented sources. If the RFID tag can be scanned by an uninterested bouncer from a short distance away, well, so can anybody else with the right equipment. That RFID tags are not the panacaea for problems the general public actually has been shown by the sudden proliferation of wallets, cases, and bags that block RFID scanners. The chips weren't originally supposed to be about tracking us, of course. No, the big sell was that businesses generally could track all their equipment perfectly and stores could end shoplifting forever. This has not happened, though we can rest assured that RFID tags have been shoved into almost everything we can buy, and the panting desire of the surveillance industry to have them literally embedded in every manufactured thing in existence is more than a little obscene.

But this is mere ranting, right? After all, most RFID tags are attached to the packaging, which we all throw away. They can't be read at extensive distances, real tracking RFID devices are more substantial and harder to hide. Nothing to worry about, right?

Alas, wrong.

Suppose that you are a person of colour. Suppose further that you go to a clothing store, to buy a jacket. This is quite a nice thing to be able to do. The store, as they all do now, attaches RFID tags to all of its merchandise. But it does so in a different way than usual. In most clothing stores, the tag is part of a large gizmo that pins to the garment and includes a dye capsule. A shoplifter would find the gizmo sets off a detector at the store entrance and exit, and if they try to get it off without the right tool, the dye will be released, spoiling the garment and probably getting all over their hands. They're weird, bulky things that can make trying stuff on awkward sometimes, but everybody knows where they stand. At this store however, all the RFID tags are sewn into the garments. Which should be no big deal, the cashier assures you. They're attached to another tag sewn into a seam like the washing instructions tag, and you are permitted to tear both off once the garment is purchased. The RFID tag is sewn into a pocket. This sounds fair enough. You do want to take the RFID tag off, after all, because otherwise it will set off other store detectors. You can only be sure RFID tag desensitization works for that store so that you can walk out without setting off their alarm. Those of you who still borrow library books and have them from more than one library system know this well.

You get your new jacket home, and hunt dutifully in the pockets for the RFID tag. Oddly enough, nothing is in either pocket that you can feel. The cashier dragged the whole thing several times over the desensitizing pad, so it's not quite clear what's going on. Maybe there wasn't one? Well, its a puzzle. No sense worrying about it. Until the next day, when while running your errands, you set off every detector in every store you enter and often ones you walk past if you are too close to their scanner units. You get to enjoy cashiers who insist on checking your purchases, your receipts, and then watching while you walk in and out without your jacket which clearly has nothing in the pockets because you and they have checked. This is bad news.

So you get the damnable jacket home, and call the store you bought it from. Where the hell is this RFID tag? What does it look like? Seems they don't know, but it's in a seam. So you have a seat, and proceed to systematically pinch and squeeze every seam, and there it is at last. It's one of those older style RFID tags for merchandise, the ones that are roughly the size of a stick of gum. Oh, and guess what. It is sewn into the lining of your jacket. Which you need. So, whether brave or desperate, you pull apart the seam and remove the RFID tag. This means you can't return the jacket for a refund, but that would be even more embarrassing anyway. At least it's a seam inside the jacket. Maybe you call the store again to give them feedback about how much harassment you get as a person of colour in a store to begin with, and how much worse it is when dealing with a hidden RFID tag that can't be universally desensitized on the jacket you bought.

I hope the store manager's response is better than a shrug.

Copyright © C. Osborne 2017
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 17, 2017 14:22:49