Website & fanzine of the SF fan club USS Hudson Bay, Toronto, Canada






I Spy with My Little Eye

[Written in March 2003 for the March/April issue of The Voyageur. Copyright © 2003 Peter de Jager.]

Hitachi has developed an electronic tag device called a µ-chip (Mu-chip), capable of announcing its presence from a distance of about 30 cm via a radio packet of 128 bits. This by itself isn't a significant achievement. Other RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) devices can transmit much larger amounts of information a greater distance.

What is significant is the size of the µ-chip. It's small enough to attach to, or be imbedded in, practically anything. It's as large as the period at the end of this sentence (0.4 mm square) and thin enough to imbed into paper. The cost per chip is around 20 cents. Like any new technology, costs will plummet once the technology matures and demand levels increase.

The proposed uses of such devices are extremely beneficial. Tagging everything with a unique identity and reading this at a distance increases the efficiency of logistics. Counting and cataloguing any collection of items requires nothing more than the waving of a "magic" wand.

It also allows for things like smart medicine cabinets. Imagine a future where your medicine cabinet tells you when a prescription has expired. Or when it contains two medicines which, if taken together, will cause adverse side-effects. All this is possible if medicine is tagged (on the container) and entered by the pharmacy into a global network connected to the electronics in your cabinet.

Other applications include the tagging of books and money, passports and visas, envelopes and milk cartons, credit cards and drivers' licences, cellphones and pets, children and thumbs. Some are already tagged; for the rest it's merely a matter of time and the arrival of the right motivation.

With any technology there are always unintended consequences.

People collect everything. I recently visited the UK and used British Rail as my means of transportation. At each station I noticed a motley crew of mostly scruffy individuals with notebooks and cameras. After a week or so I finally selected one of the more harmless-looking specimens and started up a conversation. My first guess was that they were lost and confused bird-watchers. It turns out they're a curious breed known as Trainspotters. Their hobby is to "spot" the various types of engines, carriages and containers used on the British Rail system.

If people spot trains and collect beer mugs, Pokémon, pictures of birds and stamps etc., then there will inevitably be collectors of RFID tags.

Once everything is tagged, imagine what you could learn by passing a wand over a wallet or handbag. Of course, in the beginning all you'd have is a collection of tags, but as data is compiled connecting tags to items, this would become a very interesting little hobby. How many credit cards does he have? What medications? How much money is in that wallet? No point picking a pocket if there's nothing of value for the taking!

Of course, this is all nothing but a passive form of snooping; taking it an additional step is relatively easy. The reason for tagging items used for some form of identification is obvious. The intent is to increase security in some fashion. The notion is that if I can query a tag I will receive back a unique identifier… but if anyone can query the tag, then everyone learns what that unique identifier must be… and creating a device to duplicate it is not, and cannot be made, impossible, or even unlikely.

We could assign a unique encryption algorithm to each unique ID. You then scan the tag, obtain the unique identifier and submit a random number. The tag would encrypt this number using the algorithm and respond with the magic number. This number is verified against the database of encoding algorithms and validated.

While this might all sound very sophisticated, complex and "foolproof," it's still flawed.

The solution is simply to steal/obtain the process for assigning algorithms to tags and we're back to square one. Hopefully, being aware of the weakness of this technology will mean we will avoid using it for the really important stuff. Anyone willing to place a bet we're smart enough to make the right decision?

Send feedback to Peter de Jager.

Interviews, Speeches, Articles | Voyageur Home
Voyageur Fanzine Editor
Upcoming Events & Conventions | Club History Main
Site Editor & Site Problems

Copyright © 2003, Infinite Diversity International Corporation.
Contents may not be reproduced without the permission of the Webmaster .
This is a non-profit fan club website and there is no intention to infringe
on the copyrights, trademarks, etc. of any person or entity in any matter whatsoever.