The New RFID Chip

RFID2.jpgHitachi has developed a new RFID chip, one that is much smaller than existing chips. This new chip is not that much bigger than the size of a grain of sand.

RFID stands for “radio frequency identification.” RFID chips are tiny computer chips embedded into products and animals (and sometimes people) to identify and track them. The chips send a signal that can be read by a decoder.

RFID chips have increasingly become cheaper and smaller, but this new development is rather significant. These new chips are small enough to secretly implant into nearly anything. The potential future uses of the technology are quite vast, and they obviously raise many privacy issues. One of the primary dangers is that one day RFID tags will be used to track people’s movements like a GPS homing device.

When it comes to businesses or people who might use RFID to track others, there isn’t much that current law has to say about what they can or cannot do. When it comes to law enforcement officials, the Supreme Court has held that the Fourth Amendment does not apply when an electronic device tracks a person’s movement in public. In United States v. Knotts, 460 U.S. 276 (1983), a beeper was attached to an item placed in a person’s car, and the police tracked the car’s movements. The Supreme Court held that it was not a Fourth Amendment violation. However, the Court has held that such tracking within the home is covered by the Fourth Amendment. United States v. Karo, 468 U.S. 705 (1984). Thus, in many places outside the home, a person might have no reasonable expectation of privacy according to the Court, and hence no Fourth Amendment protection against location tracking.

Some of the primary limitations on RFID have been size and detection distance. Size appears to no longer be much of an limitation anymore. As it becomes possible to detect RFID chips at greater distances, I believe they’ll increasingly be used to track people. Despite what appears to be an increasingly likely future possibility, the law doesn’t appear quite ready to address the privacy implications of RFID.

Hat tip: BoingBoing

Related Post: The RFID Tag You Carry With You (July, 2005)

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4 Responses

  1. Orin Kerr says:


    Are you assuming that installing the RFID is not a search or seizure? As I understand it, right now there is a circuit split on whether the initial attachment of locating devices on a car is itself a search or seizure (a question not addressed due to bad lawyering in Knotts).

  2. Orin — Interesting point. I wasn’t aware of the circuit cases to this effect. I wonder to what extent they turn on how the device was attached versus whether they hold that no matter what the method of attachment, the use of an RFID tag to monitor movement is a search of seizure.

  3. I’d be a little surprised if these new micro-RFIDs have much of a detection distance, but they are quite scary nonetheless for being practically undetectable by potential victims.

  4. Carol Cross says:

    RFID chips are here to stay and will eventually reduce the costs of the control of inventories at wholesale and retail level. While the author of the very excellent book “Spy Chips” indicates that the corporate world will misuse these chips and invade our privacy, I’m sure the commercial uses of the chips will override the “privacy” concerns and the corporate spies will win in the end.

    Hopefully, RFID chips, as suggested by MIT, who researched and helped to develop this technology, will mandate that merchants use the chips to prevent shoplifting and that the legalized extortion of “Civil Recovery” statutes for “apprehended” shoplifting detentions and arrests will become unnecessary.

    Someone at MIT suggested that Winona Ryder would have been spared her ordeal for shoplifting if RFID techology had been in place because the items she was found guilty of apprpriating and carrying outside of the store would have been automatically debited to her credit card.