Radio Frequency Identification as Surveillance: A Critical Analysis of Myth and Risk in an Emerging Technology

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Dawson, Danielle
Surveillance , RFID
Radiofrequency identification (RIFD) is a significant player in the spread of computation out of the box and into the environment and is becoming a key component in what some have titled the “digital era”. In its capacity to identify and classify material objects often associated with human beings, RFID should also be considered as a mechanism of surveillance. Rather than focusing on the often inflated claims of the transformative power of RFID (from both its boosters and its critics), current applications of RFID are analyzed firstly, through the lens of the digital sublime as employed by Vincent Mosco (2004), and secondly, from the risk society thesis as coined by Ulrich Beck (1992) and explored in light of Bauman’s analysis of the production of fear and its associated capacities (2007). From the viewpoint of the digital sublime, RFID promises revolutionary potential in communication, distribution and efficiency and belief in these properties seems to override actual evidence of the more limited impacts of RFID. In the risk society thesis, RFID is implemented for its perceived contribution to greater security, understood at several levels but is simultaneously feared for its grandeur of capabilities. This critical analysis of RF technologies explores the current understanding of RFID: what the perception is, how the perception was built, and what sustains it, while pointing both to the propensity of RFID to alter time-space patterns and extend surveillance but also to the ways in which both proponents and opponents of RFID may exaggerate this contribution.
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