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South Asian spying eyes

By Frederick W. Stakelbeck Jr.
web posted December 5, 2005

As President Bush returned to Washington from his trip to Beijing -- where he pressed for greater political and religious freedoms -- reports were surfacing that China was considering the introduction of a new weapon to curtail dissent: Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags.

About the size of a grain of rice, RFID tags are relatively simple devices comprised of an integrated circuit and antenna that transmits information to a receiver called a "reader." The reader is then processed according to the needs of the host or particular application.

Calls by the Chinese government for the rapid acceptance and broad implementation of RFID technology have grown louder recently, based upon several perceived benefits, including increased efficiencies related to supply-chain management; cost savings; and the ability for government agencies to capture, share and save vast amounts of accurate and precise data.

But many critics are beginning to question whether Beijing's sudden interest in RFID technology is driven by a more sinister, underlying "benefit" -- the potential to track human beings.

Dr. "Rocky" Shih, a Chinese government representative, stated at last year's RFID World Conference that he expected China would issue more than 1 billion active RFID identification cards -- one for each Chinese citizen. Approximately 3 million handheld RFID readers would also be issued by the Chinese government, one for each police officer in the country.

As widespread acceptance accelerates and improvements are made to existing RFID technology, the inevitable question of government-sanctioned abuse arises: specifically, concerns that certain governments will use the technology to monitor the activities of political dissidents, religious figures, scientists, university professors and military personnel.

Indeed, with the possible exception of notorious human-rights abusers -- such as Belarus, North Korea and Iran -- no country is more likely to use RFID technology to curtail individual freedoms and rights than Communist-controlled China.
At the Global RFID Summit in Beijing this month, the China RFID Alliance was announced to approximately 300 global IT enterprises. The new RFID Alliance is closely linked to several government departments, including the Goods Management Division of the Ministry of Information Industry (MII) and the China Information Industry Business Association. Supporting this announcement, China's recently released "Eleventh Five-Year Plan" also mentioned a comprehensive "RFID Plan" as one of the country's six major information technology initiatives.

In October, Analysis International, an Internet-based provider of business information, released its 2005 Focus on China's RFID Market Report. In the report, the company predicted that China's RFID market would likely grow at an annual rate of 33 percent as a result of Chinese government support and promotion.

At the Frontline Solutions trade show in Chicago in September 2004, Edward Zeng, a member of the important Chinese National Auto-ID Standards Working Group, made several revealing statements concerning China's RFID intentions.

Mr. Zeng noted that China planned to create its own RFID standards, rejecting any industry standards that would be eventually established by the West. While stating that China planned to be an important consumer and producer of RFID technology, Mr. Zeng brazenly insisted that without China and other Asian manufacturing countries, there would be no international standard. He supported this statement by noting that Japan and South Korea were already working on a proprietary Asian RFID standard.

While the immediate benefits associated with RFID technology are attractive, the long-term dangers presented by misuse of this technology are just as dramatic and frightening. Tracking a box as it moves from Guangzhou to Shanghai is one thing; tracking human beings is something else entirely.

Could a Chinese government pushed by internal dissention, ethnic strife and terrorism resort to "tagging" human beings? Given China's historically repressive position concerning open dissent and its recent assault on Internet privacy and use, a Beijing-mandated RFID program is plausible.

AIM Global, the trade association representing RFID manufacturers, has already produced two distinctive black and white emblems to be placed on every RFID tag -- emblems that will eventually be incorporated into international RFID standards.
Could a third emblem become a red dragon?

Frederick W. Stakelbeck Jr. is a foreign-affairs writer based in Philadelphia.

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