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Tuesday, April 18, 2006

RFID tags for kids? A story in the current Baseline magazine reports on a boutique kids' clothing manufacturer launching a new line that will include RFID tags. These embedded tags would enable, in theory, parents to track their children's whereabouts. (Note: RFID tags are essentially small silicon chips equipped with antennas that enable them to receive and respond to queries from an RFID transceiver or reader.) The article reports that Lauren Scott, chief executive officer of designer house Lauren Scott California, has encountered a number of technological and cultural obstacles in getting the RFID clothing manufactured and accepted by retail stores. For example, she had to try a number of different kinds of tags that were durable enough to withstand sewing and washing. Also, she tried numerous locations within the garments. It turned out that the seam on top of the shoulder offered enough space for the tag and also facilitated receiver pickup. The article explores the concerns of privacy advocates (who often oppose RFID technology since it can allow "spying" and corporate compilation of individual data). Several thoughts occur to me. First, do you really want one of these things six inches from your child's rapidly growing brain? RFID is not a totally passive technology. The chips contain a tiny batteries and they transmit microwave energy. Our entire society is increasingly bathed in a sea of low-level microwave radiation. We really won't know the full effects of this exposure for years. It took about 50 years of human exposure to asbestos before we discovered its health impact. I'm old enough to remember the fiasco over "flame retardant" clothes for children. In the early 1970s, several children's clothing manufacturers experimented with selling kids pajamas with the flame-retardant chemical TRIS in them. A clever idea, no? If your child is playing with candles, his pajamas won't catch on fire. It turned out to be a bad idea, as TRIS was highly toxic and many children had severe allergic reactions. A few even died after the exposure. A number of class action lawsuits ensued and the products were abruptly withdrawn from the market. My second objection is on more practical grounds. I work in healthcare marketing and have observed that RFID-tagged devices have been sold to many hospitals eager to cut down on the theft of drugs, laptops and other valuables. The results have been disappointing in many cases. Experienced theives have been able to thwart the devices pretty easily.

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