Students at U of Washington Will Be Tagged and Monitored in RFID Experiment

Welcome to the world of A Scanner Darkly — made real. In March, a group of students at the University of Washington will put RFID tags (small radio-frequency emitting computer chips) all over their clothes and belongings. RFID readers that scan and track the tags will be installed throughout the campus' 6-story Paul Allen Building for computer science (pictured here). Every move the students make, and many objects they interact with, will be monitored and logged. Plus, students will test a "friend finding" application called RFIDer that will allow them to monitor their friends' whereabouts at all times. Participants are eager to volunteer, and call the experience a glimpse into the future. What could possibly be motivating them?

According to the University of Washington news service:

To see what this future world would be like, a pilot project involving dozens of volunteers in the University of Washington's computer science building provides the next step in social networking, wirelessly monitoring people and things in a closed environment. Beginning in March, volunteer students, engineers and staff will wear electronic tags on their clothing and belongings to sense their location every five seconds throughout much of the six-story building. The information will be saved to a database, published to Web pages and used in various custom tools. The project is one of the largest experiments looking at wireless tags in a social setting.

The RFID Ecosystem project aims to create a world that many technology experts predict is just on the horizon, said project leader Magda Balazinska, a UW assistant professor of computer science and engineering. The project explores the use of radio-frequency identification, or RFID, tags in a social environment. The team has installed some 200 antennas in the Paul Allen Center for Computer Science and Engineering. Early next month researchers will begin recruiting 50 volunteers from about 400 people who regularly use the building.

"Our goal is to ask what benefits can we get out of this technology and how can we protect people's privacy at the same time," Balazinska said. "We want to get a handle on the issues that would crop up if these systems become a reality." . . . The pilot study will incorporate two new student-developed features that aim to exploit the system's potential benefits. One invention is a tool that records a person's movements in Google Calendar. Study participants can set the system to instantaneously publish activities on their Web calendar, such as arrival at work, meetings or lunch breaks.

"It's a perfect memory system that records all your personal interactions throughout the day," Welbourne said. "You can go back a day later, a month later, and see, 'What did I do that day?' or, 'Who have I spent my time with lately?'"

Another tool is a friend finder, named RFIDder (pronounced "fritter"). This sends instant alerts to participants' e-mail addresses or cell phones telling them when friends are in certain places. With RFIDder, each user can specify who is allowed to see their data. They can change the settings at any time, and can easily turn it off whenever they don't want to be found. The system will link to Twitter, an online blog that lets people post their whereabouts online.

"We want to observe how a group of people uses these tools, whether they find them useful, how they adapt them," Balazinska said.

I'm glad the group is studying the privacy implications of all this, because holy crap. Do you really want your colleagues to see when you've left the building or gone to the bathroom on your Google Calendar? Or for your Facebook friends to know exactly where you are at all times? I'm having a hard time understanding why an RFID Ecosystem future is one that I would want to embrace or plan for in any way other than lobbying to make it illegal.

Future of Social Networking [U of Washington News]