Friday, September 05, 2003

Gadget Geek vs. Privacy Freek
I work at a college textbook wholesaler. That means we deal in used books. We also deal in new books, software, calculators and a whole bunch of other stuff people don't normally think of when they hear "college textbook wholesaler", but for now I want to talk about used books. Sort of.

When buyback season is over, we get tons of books shipped to our warehouse. Literally. Semi after semi pulls up, filled end to end with boxes of books. Some of those boxes contain textbook gold, some of them lead, and there's no easy way to tell which. We just fill up the loading dock and open the boxes one by one. This takes a long time. Months, sometimes. That means that we'll very often receive orders for books that we think we're out of, but in actuality, those books are in our warehouse, but sitting on a shelf on the loading dock. Happens all the time, and it doesn't just mean lost business for us. After all, we're dealing with a finite commodity. If we don't know we have it, then some student somewhere either has to pay extra to get a new book (or because demand goes us, but that rarely happens, given the way the personality of our marketplace, which is very good about punishing perceived bad behavior) or even go without until we can find it.

There is a solution to this problem. RFID. Little chips embedded in the price tag that respond to a radio signal with a little chirp that says "Here I am, and this is what I am!" So we could read the contents of every box that enters our warehouse as it enters the warehouse and prioritize the boxes accordingly.

There is a problem with this solution. Privacy. The net is full of nightmare scenarios, like stores that know how much money you have in your wallet, police knowing what bars you frequent, your wife knowing where your pants have been. Or the feds knowing what books you have in your backpack. Nobody cares if you're taking Calculus, but if you happen to be taking Biochemistry, Aviation, and Electronic Circuitry all in one semester, that might raise some flags. And it's not a far leap from there to keeping an eye on everybody hanging out at the courthouse that has a copy of A People's History of the United States in his Prayer Mat Messenger Bag.

So what side do I come down on? Hell, I dunno. Ashcroft and others in the Bush administration have done a pretty good job of making my more paranoid friends look reasonable, if not downright prescient. But I also think they'll be out of work in a year and a half or so. What's more likely is highly targeted marketing as a result of co-branding, so that when I walk into Target wearing Eddie Bauer jeans, a little voice tells me about their special "Eddie Bauer Store" in the sporting goods section.

In other words, if I push RFID as a solution at work, I could be helping to usher in a future that is not particularly sinister, but is significantly more annoying. Which brings up an interesting ethical dilemma: If you could go back in time and kill the guy that invented infomercials, would you?

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