Here's a vision of the not-so-distant future:
• Microchips with antennas will be embedded in virtually everything you buy, wear, drive and read, allowing retailers and law enforcement to track consumer items — and, by extension, consumers — wherever they go, from a distance.
• A seamless, global network of electronic "sniffers" will scan radio tags in myriad public settings, identifying people and their tastes instantly so that customized ads, "live spam," may be beamed at them.
• In "Smart Homes," sensors built into walls, floors and appliances will inventory possessions, record eating habits, monitor medicine cabinets — all the while, silently reporting data to marketers eager for a peek into the occupants' private lives.
In truth, much of the radio frequency identification technology that enables objects and people to be tagged and tracked wirelessly already exists — and new and potentially intrusive uses of it are being patented, perfected and deployed.
Some of the world's largest corporations are vested in the success of RFID technology, which couples highly miniaturized computers with radio antennas to broadcast information about sales and buyers to company databases.
Already, microchips are turning up in some computer printers, car keys and tires, on shampoo bottles and department store clothing tags. They're also in library books and "contactless" payment cards (such as American Express' "Blue" and ExxonMobil's "Speedpass.")
Companies say the RFID tags improve supply-chain efficiency, cut theft, and guarantee that brand-name products are authentic, not counterfeit. At a store, RFID doorways could scan your purchases automatically as you leave, eliminating tedious checkouts.
At home, convenience is a selling point: RFID-enabled refrigerators could warn about expired milk, generate weekly shopping lists, even send signals to your interactive TV, so that you see "personalized" commercials for foods you have a history of buying. Sniffers in your microwave might read a chip-equipped TV dinner and cook it without instruction.
"We've seen so many different uses of the technology," says Dan Mullen, president of AIM Global, a national association of data collection businesses, including RFID, "and we're probably still just scratching the surface in terms of places RFID can be used."
The problem, critics say, is that microchipped products might very well do a whole lot more.
With tags in so many objects, relaying information to databases that can be linked to credit and bank cards, almost no aspect of life may soon be safe from the prying eyes of corporations and governments, says Mark Rasch, former head of the computer-crime unit of the U.S. Justice Department.
By placing sniffers in strategic areas, companies can invisibly "rifle through people's pockets, purses, suitcases, briefcases, luggage — and possibly their kitchens and bedrooms — anytime of the day or night," says Rasch, now managing director of technology at FTI Consulting Inc., a Baltimore-based company.
In an RFID world, "You've got the possibility of unauthorized people learning stuff about who you are, what you've bought, how and where you've bought it ... It's like saying, 'Well, who wants to look through my medicine cabinet?"'