RFID & wireless surveillance in the Internet of Things

On: October 29, 2009
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About Maarten Hoogvliet
I am a MA student of the Media and Culture master New Media at the University of Amsterdam and I have a BA degree in Communication and Multimedia Design at the HRO in Rotterdam, formerly a part of the Willem de Kooning Academy of Art. Next to doing my masters I am a graphic designer/illustrator.


In the next century, planet earth will don an electronic skin. […] It consists of millions of embedded electronic measuring devices. […] These will probe and monitor […] our bodies, even our dreams.” [1]

A RFID chip consists of a small electric circuit and some digital storage space with an attached radio antenna. By means of RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) information can be wirelessly read, altered and stored in a database. These chips are small and can be embedded in objects (like clothing) or bodies.

RFID chips can be implanted in articles in stores, as a replacement of the classic barcode. When you leave or enter a store the articles you have on you are wirelessly scanned (whether you just bought them or had them for some time). For instance, when you enter a store, store personnel knows your taste in fashion and can advise you based on your previous purchases.

Over time, purchases can create a customer profile; the unique id’s of the chips can be linked to a pin or credit card. Transactions could provide an endless stream of information.

“On each landing, opposite the lift shaft, the poster with the enormous face gazed from the wall. It was one of those pictures, which are so contrived that eyes follow you about when you move. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption beneath it ran.” [1]

Disciplinary to Control

According to Michel Foucault, disciplinary societies work by organizing hierarchic surveillance, his central metaphor being the panopticon by Jeremy Bentham; the ideal system of control. The round prison with the centrally placed watchtower enables the guard(s) to watch every inmate at any time. In this model, physical human presence works repressive and reflective.[2] Foucault puts forward that this model extends further than the prison, to all disciplinary institutions characterizing the period from industrial revolution to the second half of the last century, like the factory, the school and the hospital. In the disciplinary society, life is tightly organized in different districts of power, mainly constituted by the physical limits of the classic institution; the building. These districts arrange the citizen’s life and control it, while they are moving through them. The disorderly and threatening mob is transformed to a organized whole of different groups and categories.

However, Foucault realized his classic disciplinary society was temporary and unsteady of nature.

“While the number of disciplinary institutions grow, their mechanisms show a certain tendency for “de-institutionalization” – their mechanisms leave the closed sites in which they functioned to circulate in the open space, the compact and massive discipline falls into pliable control methods, which are adjustable and easily transferred.” [2]

Since the end of the Second World War we find ourselves in a period in which the great organizers (e.g. factory, school, hospital) of public life are in decline. The power they hold is as real as ever, but is not limited by the physical space of the building. The different closed systems of control extend further than the architecture; to having a constant effect on a citizen’s daily life, even when he is at home. The classic disciplinary society transforms to a control society in which different districts of power overlap and an open system of constant general surveillance comes into being. [3] Technical possibilities as surveillance camera’s on the streets, the electronic patient file, the biometric passport and RFID are a part of this.

“ [..] What it means to talk of institutions breaking down: the wide-spread progressive introduction of a new system of domination.” [3]

RFID in the Internet of Things

At the beginning of the new millennium Intel did the following prediction:

“Computing, not computers will characterize the next era of the computer age. The critical focus in the very near future will be on ubiquitous access to pervasive and largely invisible computing resources. A continuum of information processing devices ranging from microscopic embedded devices to giant server farms will be woven together with networks of the future.” [1]

Originally, the Internet mainly supported human activity and interaction in a world apart from ours; ‘Cyberspace’. Nowadays, the Internet is mixing with reality, is embedded in our world. Among theories linked to this phenomena is Mark Weiser’s Ubiquitous Computing. The Internet transforms; it doesn’t pull the user through the screen into its world, but pours itself from the screen onto everything in our world. Result: Invisible connectivity, embedded in our homes, machines, even our bodies. RFID tags make that connectivity possible. RFID enables previously passive objects to be a part of an autonomous network of data structures, where objects exchange data without human intervention; the Internet of Things.

“With RFID each object has its own unique identifier and individuals will – apart from being walking repositories of biometric data – become entangled in an “Internet of Things.” RFID foreshadows what nano-electronics has in store for our privacy: invisible surveillance.” [5]

The architecture of new surveillance like RFID logically isn’t the same as that of the panopticon. The buildings of classic institutions symbolize the central control and monitoring of civilians in Foucault’s disciplinary society. In the control society the architecture’s prominence disappears, it’s place taken by a whole of invisible surveillance, continuously watching us. Instead of direct discipline and a consciousness of the physical borders of controlling institutions, the control society creates discipline by conditioning the civilian to accept constant surveillance. The power districts expand, to overlap one another, growing to be a whole covering all reality. We know we are being watched and that it is all for our ‘security’. Obedience is a logical result.

  1. McCullough, Malcolm. ‘Digital Ground. Architecture, Pervasive Computing, and Environmental Knowing’. The MIT Press (2005): p. 2-24.
  2. Orwell, George. ‘1984’, New York: Penguin, 1949.
  3. Foucault, Michel. ‘Discipline and Punish; the Birth of the Prison’, New York: Vintage Books, 1995.
  4. Deleuze, Gilles. ‘Postscript on Control Societies’ in Thomas Levin, Ursula Frohne and Peter Weibel (eds.), Ctrl Space: Rhetorics of Surveillance from Bentham to Big Brother, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press (2002): p. 317-321.
  5. Hoven, van den, Jeroen en Vermaas, Pieter E. ‘Nano-Technology and Privacy: On Continuous Surveillance Outside the Panopticon’, Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, 2007, 32:283-297.
One Response to “RFID & wireless surveillance in the Internet of Things”
  • October 30, 2009 at 3:55 pm

    Do you think RFID is the dominant technology for ‘blanket’ surveillance? As I am very interested in IoT (MA thesis) and currently into surveillance research I very much doubt the RFID part. Especially in the case of retailers that you mention. Where technologies like arphids and concepts like nanotech sound very strong, they are still very far from actually reaching our daily lives. Application I can think of for now are entrance passes to buildings. (Nokia even stopped making RFID phones due to lack of apps/ interest; they’ve been making them for over a decade now. And the only strong consumer case for nanotech currently is suncream). However useful RFID may be for retailers, stocks and marketing departments, often these technologies are still not convincing enough to become affordable. Often surveillance ‘innovation’ is found in software advancements for camera tracking and tracing, tagging etc. I think it is not connected things we have to worry about, but rather the evolving camera software that decides in-and exclusion.

    By the way, if you want to get rid of the RFID chip in your passport:

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