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RFID, AIDC, and IoT News: It Starts - Measures in US, Japan to Track People with Automatic Identification


Stuff of Science Fiction May be Closer than We Think


Dec. 13, 2016
SCDigest Editorial Staff

In the early days of automatic identification, say at the start of 1990s, it was not uncommon to leave a related trade show and find a leaflet under your windshield wiper warning that bar codes were the mark of the devil. The leaflet likely showed a man with a bar code somehow printed on his forehead, or maybe even branded onto his back.

Of course the idea of automatically identifying and/or tracking humans has showed up in sci-fi books and movies for years, perhaps most notably in the recent movie The Minority Report, where the use of iris scans - certainly a form of auto ID - to identify humans plays a key role in the plot.

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The bill's original language authorized the Attorney General to insert tracking chips into individuals involuntarily.

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In the presidential race in the US last year, then candidate Chris Christi of New Jersey made noise when he talked about tracking people in the US on visas like a FedEx package, commenting that "However long your visa is, then we go get you and tap you on the shoulder and say, 'Excuse me, it's time to go,'" based on that tracking system.

To which SCDigest editor Dan Gilmore wrote a column headlined No You Can't Track People Like FedEx Packages.

But perhaps people tracking with auto ID will no longer be just a practice seen in science fiction or in the ramblings of politicians not really familiar with how the technology works. Ideas in both Japan and the US are progressing to implement forms of human identification and possibly then tracking, and where it could go from there is not clear and perhaps worrisome.

First, the Japanese city of Iruma, near Tokyo, is supplying tiny waterproof QR code stickers to families with elderly relatives at risk of wandering away from their homes and getting lost (see photo nearby).

The QR stickers -which last about a month - can be placed onto a fingernail or carried around on a key holder.

If the program is broadened to the whole country, people who come across a disoriented member of the elderly population could scan their stickers with their smartphones, using an app, and find out the wearer's registration number, their hometown and the telephone number of their local city hall.

It's hoped the current program in Iruma will connect a missing person to their family more easily.

As such, the program is almost identical to the practice in the US and elsewhere of implanting RFID chips in dogs or cats. Those chips do not track the animal in real-time, but if a lost pet is found, the chip can be scanned by a vet to identify where the dog came from. The Japanese system  for the elderly is almost identical in practice, but uses the QR codes instead of implanted chips.

Iruma had previously rented out small GPS devices for families who wanted to keep track of errant elderly relatives. However, that approach didn't work, as the old people often forgot to take the devices with them when they left the house.

Meanwhile, a bill being introduced in the US Congress would allow government agencies to locate people with dementia or developmental disabilities with tracking devices.

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The measure came after a couple of young boys with autism in the US died in drowning accidents in recent years after wondering away from home.

The legislation would permit the Justice Department to award grants to law enforcement agencies and non-profits for training and tracking devices to find individuals with autism or seniors with Alzheimer's or other dementia who have wandered away.

"We all empathize with a parent who learns that their child is missing, including and especially when that child has autism or another developmental disability,” said Representative Chris Smith of New Jersey, who introduced the bill. "When children with a disability or seniors with Alzheimer's do wander, time and training are essential to ensure their safe return.”

However, many are concerned the measure goes too far. The bill's original language authorized the Attorney General to insert tracking chips into individuals involuntarily. However, the language in the bill has been changed to ensure that tracking devices are not invasive or permanent - like a bar code sticker instead of an implanted chip - and would be voluntary. The government would also be prevented from making a database of the information. The attorney general would still be able to decide who could receive these tracking devices and would have access to the data.

So this measure seems not to mandate a specific form of technology, and its fate is far from certain. It is also unclear yet whether this bill would just encourage identification - similar to the Japanese program for the elderly, or actual tracking, though again how this would be accomplished is unknown and for now likely impractical.

Still, however well intended, the proposed law would seem to move the US a bit down the path of the government tracking people feared by the leaflet makers 25 years ago.

Are you at all concerned about these programs leading down a slippery slope of governments tracking people? Why or why not? Let us know your thoughts at the Feedback button below.

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