Spyware in your Underwear?

A recent article on TheStreet talk Wal-Mart putting RFID tags in its merchandise.  The article questions whether or not this is an invasion of privacy, and some privacy advocates are up in arms about this. According to Wal-Mart the RFID tags can be removed from purchased items. The RFID tags are not personalized to the customer. That is to say, the tags are created with no knowledge or concern of who the customer is. Your name and other personal information is not on the chip. When you wear a pair of Levi’s it doesn’t take an RFID scanner to know you are wearing a pair of Levi’s. Of course the brand of undergarment you wear is generally not visible, so I suppose there is potential for an invasion of privacy there. Still privacy advocates, which I generally consider myself to be, are cautioning that the tags are still active even if you throw them in the trash. This would allow a scanner wielding dumpster diver to know some of the stuff you bought. You probably can destroy the RFID tag with a hammer or pair of scissors. You can also throw the tags away in public garbage cans that do not identify your location. 

The article raises concerns that Wal-Mart will be able to scan your merchandise as well as other RFID enabled documents in order to build a profile on you.  One privacy advocate warns that Wal-Mart may be able to also scan some driver’s licenses or a passport to obtain more information. The fact is that Wal-Mart already can purchase RFID scanners and use them in their stores. Washington State is one of a few states that offer an RFID equipped driver’s license. The chip allegedly contains no personal information, rather a unique identifier. When the RFID equipped license is read the number is then fed into a database with the Washington department of licensing to find out who the driver is and perform other checks. Presumably Wal-Mart has no access to the state’s database. Additionally, Washington state law makes it a felony to intentionally possess, read, or capture information on another person’s Enhanced Driver License/ID without that person’s knowledge and consent. I don’t think Wal-Mart sees the sale of a bra as worth committing a felony over, but I could be wrong. Then again, the state of Washington provides a security sleeve to protect the RFID tag from being activated when you are not at a border crossing station. US Passports are also shielded so that the chip is readable only when the passport is open, not to mention that the data is encrypted as well.

Personally, I am not concerned about Wal-Mart using RFID tags for inventory. If I was then I would also by an RFID scanner to check and see if there are any tags on anything else I own and didn’t realize they were there.

There has been a lot of controversy about shopping at Wal-Mart due to their business practices and I am not even going to take on that debate, but I will say that the underwear should be safe. Watch out for the USB devices as they really can contain spyware!!!

Randy Abrams
Director of Technical Education

Author , ESET

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