Big Brother’s Little Friend

As soon as a researcher at a technology firm in South Korea arrives at work, he hangs his ID card around his neck. But his is no ordinary ID. The card has a Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tag on the back, which tracks the time he get to work and leaves, where he is in the building at any time, and how many times and for how long he is out of his seat.

Should the boss be watching us so closely? American company’s practice of implanting RFID chips into employees raised issues of human rights. In South Korea, monitoring at work has become common. According to research from the National Human Rights Commission of Korea, over half of the workforce is monitored through some sort of surveillance technology. Of Korean firms that have put RFID systems in place, only 20 percent have done so after discussions with labor unions.

Despite the controversies, there seems little doubt that we are set to enter the RFID era. Internationally, RFID is expected to continue to be among the hottest technologies in 2006. As a major contributor to the development of RFID, South Korea is busy finding new ways to apply the technology.

Libraries and transportation facilities in South Korea are now installing RFID chips. One of the most anticipated uses of the technology, however, will be to monitor dealings with North Korea.

The South Korean government plans to issue RFID-equipped cards to travellers to the North, Yonhap News reported on Feb. 14. The new cards were tested on 30 people who crossed the border last December. The system is expected to reduce paperwork related to movement across the border and cut time for clearing customs.

RFID cards will also be used to keep track of strategic equipment taken to North Korea. With the expansion of South Korean facilities in the North’s Kaesong Industrial Complex, the system will relieve concerns about technology being diverted for military purposes.

Travel and trade between South and North Korea are growing, and Seoul hopes to have the RFID system online within months.

Eventually, RFID chips might be used in multi-functional card that serves as ID, passport, transit card, and cafeteria meal ticket. For better or worse, South Korea appears to be at the forefront of the move toward RFID.