WATPA: FW: The Economist - "No hiding place for anyone"

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From: Norman J. Jacknis (norm@jacknis.com)
Date: Fri Oct 05 2001 - 11:10:28 EDT

Interesting article on where some of the newer wireless technology is heading.



No hiding place for anyone

Embedded in bank notes or designer labels, the
"mu-chip" can beep out the owner's location and
details to marketers and thieves alike
IN TODAY'S information age, everybody leaves an
electronic trail in their wake. With every credit-card
purchase, ATM transaction, telephone call and Internet
logon, they create an electronic portrait of
themselves that grows clearer at every step. Perhaps
the only items that are still untraceable are people's
clothes, cash and day-to-day movements. But with the
introduction of Hitachi's new "mu-chip", even these
could become common knowledge.

The Hitachi chip is the world's smallest wireless
identification device. It measures 0.4 millimetres
square and is thin enough to be embedded in paper. It
can hold only 128 bits of read-only memory, and do
little more than spit out a unique identification
number, when asked, to a distance of about 30
centimetres. It uses the same frequency band (2.45
gigahertz) as such longer-range wireless networking
technologies as Bluetooth and 802.11b. But with the
mu-chip's tiny size come some large implications.

Until now, size and production cost were the main
obstacles that stopped companies from embedding
identification chips in everyday items. But Hitachi
has managed to create an integrated circuit that is
not only tiny but cheap. The company expects a single
chip to cost less than 20 (16 cents). Originally, the
chip was built in an attempt to foil counterfeiters.
It is small and thin enough to be woven into paper,
and folding does not harm it. In combination with a
bar-code reader, the chips can prove the authenticity
of money or official documents, thwarting
counterfeiters before they have even begun.

The chip has captured wide attention. The day after
Hitachi unveiled it, Mu-Solutions, an in-house venture
company founded in Tokyo to market the device, had
more than 400 telephone enquiries. Mu-Solutions has
now formed partnerships with some 40 companies around
the world.

Ryo Imura, boss of Mu-Solutions, knows there is a
large market out there-in everything from securities
to retail sales. The Gap, a clothing chain for the
young based in San Francisco, is interested in the
chip for its marketing potential. The company wants to
integrate the chip into its clothing labels, so that
when a customer buys a pair of jeans, or a little
black dress, that information will be sent straight to
the company's database. Expensive brands, such as
Gucci or Chanel, could use the chips to inhibit cheap
imitations. Hospitals could use the chips as
patient-identification tags.

The tiny Hitachi chip, however, could feed a number of
privacy concerns. Although the chip now requires a
separate machine to read it, future incarnations will
doubtless be able to communicate wirelessly. Embedded
in cash, central banks could monitor the flow of paper
money, determining who has spent what and where-a
function that credit cards already perform. Identity
chips could even be embedded in valuables, so that
they could be tracked in case of theft.

But the mu-chip is a Pandora's box, believes Lee Tien,
an attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation
(EEF), a San Francisco-based organisation that
specialises in the conflict between technology and
personal rights. Although he has no intention of
demonising the Hitachi chip, it is nevertheless an
example of how surveillance technology is getting
cheaper all the time.

Overtones of Big Brother may not be the only problems.
If tiny chips woven into money and other valuables
were constantly announcing their whereabouts, a thief
would know precisely which person or home to rob. By
the same token, chips in clothing-linked to their
owner's identity at the time of purchase-could mark
the wearer's location anywhere on earth.

The EEF's Mr Tien points out that, by definition,
privacy means not being watched, or known about, or
listened to. These new chips may therefore constitute
a direct infringement of personal privacy. Whether
they are challenged-in much the same way as the Intel
Pentium II processor's ID numbers were-remains to be
seen. For now, Hitachi claims to be unconcerned. The
chips will be available from the end of 2001, with
annual sales forecast to reach $145m by 2005

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