They’re keeping an eye out for us

March 7, 2005

We have become a nation inured to being watched. Surveillance is all around us: Webcams, cell phones with digital cameras, cameras in banks, fast food joints, and convenience stores, at traffic lights, even at the front doors of our friends.

We have become a nation inured to being watched. Surveillance is all around us: Webcams, cell phones with digital cameras, cameras in banks, fast food joints, and convenience stores, at traffic lights, even at the front doors of our friends.

For years, professional meetings have tracked the comings and goings of visitors with such relatively benign methods as CME vouchers and audience response systems. But last year, at the RSNA meeting, it was different. The RSNA embedded computer chips into hundreds of name badges. The chips, which interacted with radio-frequency identification (RFID) sensors mounted outside certain courses, had been programmed with data about the persons wearing the badges.

This came as no surprise to those badge-wearers. The RSNA had asked the 800 or so preregistrants of certain courses if they minded wearing the chip-embedded badges. All but a half-dozen said it was okay. This 99%-plus indifference to high-tech surveillance may be the scariest aspect of all, but more about that later.

A decision on whether to use the tracking devices at next year's meeting is still up in the air, according to the society. But I think the long-term decision is hardly in question.

Once the RSNA works out the bugs, RFIDs as a means to keep track of attendees will likely be commonplace. From there, it will be a small step to exploit this indifference that will allow the movements of everyone attending this meeting to be followed, not only to courses but around the exhibit floor.

The RSNA might tell everyone what is going on. Attendees might even have a chance, when they register, to get a badge without a chip, but few will likely exercise that option. The chips will make it easy for them to get CME credit, for example. It will be even easier to get information about equipment.

If this comes to be, and I were a vendor, I'd be ecstatic. Imagine knowing the names of everyone who visits your booth. Better yet, knowing what parts of the booth they visited. Better still, learning how long they lingered at one place or another.

But this portends a dark future.

Spy satellites, once aimed at the Soviet Union and China, are now scoping us out, protecting us from terrorists and weapons of mass destruction. Cameras strewn throughout the landscape follow our every move. Credit cards and electronic checks provide the financial bread crumbs by which anyone with access to those data can track us down in a millisecond.

Despite decades of government pronouncements that the U.S. would never become an Orwellian society, the technological foundation of just such a society has been laid. The more willing we are to accept electronic invasions into our lives for matters not related to our security, the more intrusive this technology becomes and the more at risk we are of losing not only our privacy but our liberty.