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New HP Wireless Chip Connects The Digital And Real Worlds

InformationWeek | July 17, 2006
By Thomas Claburn

COMMENT:
It's incredibly important that people understand the broad-based implications of this powerful new technology. RFID tags which contain only a tiny bit of information, an ID number, can only be used to reference greater amounts of information in a database. These new "MemorySpot" chips from HP can contain pages and pages worth of data in the chips themselves and this data can be modified and updated.

So unlike buying a shirt that has an embedded RFID tag that just has a reference number which links to your name, spending tendencies or other information in some "private" database somewhere, the "MemorySpot" chip can actually store your name, the shirt's the date of purchase and perhaps a listing of previous purchases made at the store where you bought it.

Since a reader wouldn't need access to any particular database to access the information contained on the chip, any reader could access the data on the chip from across a room (encryption methods not withstanding). Its the equivilent of walking around wearing a sign crammed with personal information that any individual, marketing outfit or corporation could read and use to manipulate you. If you hadn't already figured it out, this is a door to incredible privacy violations.

In an effort to strengthen the connection between the digital and physical worlds, HP today said that its researchers have created a tiny wireless microchip called the Memory Spot that can be used to affix digital content to tangible objects.

The chip—about the size of half a grain of rice—might be attached to a photo print, where it could provide access to the original digital photo file to anyone who wanted to make a company. Howard Taub, VP and Associate Director of Hewlett-Packard Laboratories, said he hopes to see chip reading electronics, costing perhaps a few dollars, built into cell phones, PDAs, Flash drives, and other devices, including printers.

Taub said HP's aim was to make potential partners aware of the technology so they can begin discussing how it might be developed and deployed. He estimated it could take several years before it's commercially useful, with an eco-system of readers and product uses that make the chips practical.

Taub also showed how the chip might be used to attach an audio file of a physician reading a prescription to a pill bottle. Another demonstration included a postcard that contained a version of the classic arcade game PacMan that Taub scanned with a reader device into a PC and played. While such digital files can easily be stored and made accessible online, the Memory Spot allows computer files to be associated with actual objects, where they remain accessible whether or not there's Internet connectivity.

Current versions of the Memory Spot can hold from 256 kilobits to 4 megabits, enough for dozens of pages of text, a few photos, several minutes of audio, or a very short video clips, depending on the quality of the video encoding.

The HP Memory Spot is similar to an RFID chip in many respects. The primary difference is that RFID chips store a pointer or reference to a database entry. The HP Memory Spot stores the data itself.

"It's order of magnitude different in [storage] capacity and bandwidth," Taub said. "But the truth is it's like comparing a monkey and a human: There are some similarities between them." Taub said he believed the two technologies were complementary. (He leaves it to you which technology represents the monkey in his analogy.)

The Memory Spot has a data-transfer rate of 10 Mbps, which is about 10 times faster than the Bluetooth wireless protocol and comparable to an 802.11b WiFi connection. It operates at a frequency of 2.45 GHz. RFID chips, which operate at 13.56 MHz, typically transfer data at a rate of 10 to 100 Kbps.

Taub expects Memory Spot chips will be more expensive than RFID chips. He said HP's researchers were assuming a cost of $1 a chip for the purpose of considering potential uses and markets that could sustain that cost. The actual cost of the chips will depend on the volume at which they are eventually produced. At this point, the HP Memory Spot seems likely to cost five to ten times more than a passive RFID chip.

The Memory Spot has another advantage over RFID chips: It can't be read from far away, thus obviating the privacy fears that have dogged RFID. "If you had one on you, on an object, and the object was in your pocket, no one can get at it," Taub explained. "You have to literally touch it [with a reader] or almost touch it. So privacy issues sort of go away."

That also makes it —along with the cost—a much less practical tool for supply-chain monitoring. One advantage of RFID over, say, bar codes, is that they can be read at some distance without having to touch the product, or the pallet it's on.

That's not to say, however, it would be impossible to read a Memory Spot chip from a distance. "It would be hard," Taub said. "I'm sure the military might be able figure out a way to do it, but I think it would require extraordinary technology to read something whose fields were very local."

Memory is also a big difference. While the Memory Spot can hold up to 4 megabits, RFID chips hold only a few kilobits generally.

The memory spot also supports SHA-1 authentication, so access can be restricted. It also allows on-chip encryption using the on-board processor.

The Memory Spot measures about 2 mm square with an integrated antenna. RFID chips tend to be larger, around 5 to 8 cm including an external antenna.

Because of its size and durability, the HP chip can be easily embedded in a piece of paper, plastic, or other material, inorganic or otherwise.

Taub said that software development kits (SDKs) for developing Memory Spot-related applications will be made available to partners.


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