FoeBud: How we learned to stop RFID

FoeBud are a German group of privacy activists that has has a long history of public interventions in privacy and RFID. Rena Tangens and Padeluun presented their work at the recent workshop How I learned to love RFID at HMKV in Dortmund. This is a brief writeup of their talk and the issues raised during a day of practical explorations with RFID electronics.


In the past they have organised the Big brother awards, and Stop RFID campaigns at high profile industry events. They have gathered momentum in public opinion, to the extent that many German retailers and manufacturers have had to change their policy on RFID usage.

Data privatizer
The FoeBud data privatizer can read, write and copy RFID tags.

They have probed the issue of privacy with such actions as printing personal information on personalised t-shirts to understand why there is a general lack of knowledge about the valuable data that people willingly give up. How do people feel about walking around with their marital status, passport numbers, age, address etc. in full public view. This is somewhat related to the experimental project called Loome by Livework about personal information and value.

They have also created a set of scenarios (in German) that probe the potential misuses and problems with RFID and tagging of things. As a design exercise these are really creative and interesting. They have also apparently had a large effect on public opinion of RFID.

Nokia 3220 RFID reader: detected!
Detecting radiation from the Nokia 3220 NFC phone with FoeBud’s bracelet.

In one large intervention they invited Katherine Albrecht to visit the Metro future store. The Metro group is exploring advanced uses of RFID on the customer side of the supply chain. They are using RFID enabled DVD covers that act as physical tokens for movie trailers on an in-store screen. On the surface this seems like an intuitive example of interaction design, but customers must also use their RFID enabled customer card to verify that they are 16 years or older in order to view the movie. This leads to concerns that the store is tracking the viewing habits of their customers. This is not the most pressing privacy concern, but what is problematic is the way in which the tracking process was invisible, the Metro group tried to hide the fact that they had RFID in the customer cards and were secretive about the technology involved in the process. Clearly this is not the way to roll out a new user-centred technology.

They have also explored the upcoming use of RFID in the World Cup. In this case the organisers are using customers passport numbers to verify them: and embedding RFID into the paper tickets. What is interesting here is that it is very difficult to find out why they are using RFID, it seems that it’s a large scale technology trial that is overly invasive, without any user-benefits.

Tag finder
The FoeBud tagfinder.

During the workshop we created two electronic prototypes: an RFID reader detector and a tag detector. Both products are sold by FoeBud on their website. These are extremely interesting products: well made and useful. In the same way as NFC in mobile phones starts to offer end-users some control over RFID, their products start to give us an awareness of the emerging readers, writers and tags embedded in the environment and in objects.

Bruce solders
Bruce Sterling solders surface mount components for an RFID ‘Tagfinder’

These products seem like the first signs of an emerging market for tools that allow greater user-awareness of RFID. It would be useful to explore how we might embed such technology in other everyday products, or make more commonplace objects for detecting, reading, writing, copying and perhaps jamming.

An RFID reader detecting badge, soon to be available.

Overall it’s great to meet people that have a lot of fun doing the work that they do, they seem to get an enormous sense of satisfaction out of the triumphs they have over large industry. Although I disagreed with their presentation of RFID as being uniformly invasive, it was great to see a group being so pro-active in offering ways for people to visualise and protect their own privacy.

You can buy some of their ‘privacy enhancing’ products at their online shop, look particularly for their RFID products.

Related things:

  1. Rob van Kranenburg at ‘How I learned to love RFID’ On the 20th May, Rob van Kranenburg talked at How I learned to love RFID in HMKV in Dortmund, Germany. This is a short summary of a huge presentation on RFID issues, that covered......
  2. Bruce Sterling at ‘How I learned to love RFID’ On the 20th May, Bruce Sterling talked at How I learned to love RFID in HMKV in Dortmund, Germany. He covers a lot of ground, including approaches to sustainability, artist use of RFID and......
  3. RFID, logistics and material flow On the final day of How I learned to love RFID we visited the Fraunhofer institute for material flow and logistics. The institute concentrates on supply chain, logistic and robotic applications. They also foster......
  4. Touch at Recalling RFID I will be presenting at Recalling RFID in Amsterdam on Friday 19 and Saturday 20 October 2007. The programme includes ‘presentations and debates on RFID and digital connectivity scenarios with speakers from the industry,......
  5. The RFID photo booth At last year’s Picnic conference we created a networked Photo Booth as part of the Mediamatic RFID hackers camp. Picnic is a conference with about two thousand attendees and multiple venues in the Westergasfabriek......

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One Comment

  1. Confidential
    Posted 16 November 2007 at 2:54 | Permalink

    Does your product work on human rfid implants in the arm?

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