Radio Frequency

RADIO FREQUENCY

by Karrie Higgins

Originally published in the Los Angeles Review, No. 2, 2005

Five hundred miles above the surface of the Earth, the European InSAR Satellite monitors the ground under our feet. In May 2001, Chuck Wicks of the United States Geological Survey was analyzing data from the Three Sisters volcanoes near Sisters, Oregon, when he noticed a bull’s-eye pattern where the ground was bulging upward. A ten-mile-wide area had lifted four inches between August 1996 and October 2000 — approximately one inch per year.

When compared to previous data, topographical measurements revealed continued uplift at Sisters — soil rising like a cake. Nobody knows what this means — an impending earthquake, a volcanic eruption, or nothing at all.

No matter what, it took a distance of five hundred miles even to notice. In this sense, the InSAR satellite is closer to the ground than we can ever hope to be, more intimate with the earth than our own toes.

____

Once, after my grandfather died, my aunt leaned in close and whispered, “Dead people see everything you do.” She pressed her rouged cheek against my earlobe, so close I could smell orange Certs on her breath. Certs smelled like the inside of my mother’s purse, the zippered compartment in which she sometimes stashed candies and snacks for long church sermons or funerals. In other words, Certs carried the promise of both authority and comfort.

“Grandpa is watching,” my aunt said. “If you pick your nose, he will know. If you kiss a boy, he will know.” She smoothed my hair and lifted my chin with her fingertips. “From now on, you are never alone.”

That night, when I stripped off my polyester roller skate shirt and slid into the bathtub, I felt rough grit scratching my buttocks and calves, soap slime like grease between my toes. The lime green porcelain had always seemed a little dirty, but now the sensation was overwhelming. Grandpa was watching me bathe. I was not sure where to locate him — inside the light bulb or mirror, floating on a cloud, dispersed in the air? I leaned over to hide my crotch and chest, wondered how I could dry off without the old man peeking.

Later, when I asked my aunt about privacy — how to feel alone when there were ghosts all around — she said not to worry. “It only matters if you do something wrong.”

____

August 6, 2001: I am lying in the middle of Broadway Street in downtown Portland, hot concrete burning into my shoulder, both knees twisted to one side, right hip numb. A few hundred others are sprawled nearby — fellow participants in an impromptu die-in to protest the media blackout of police violence during the G8 Summit in Genoa, Italy. We are all viscerally aware of the bicycle police lining the sidewalk nearby, as well as lunch hour traffic backed up for several blocks. What if an SUV speeds over us? What if a nightstick shatters our cheekbones or noses?

Ten minutes ago, I did not even know what a die-in was. I came downtown to attend a funeral procession in memory of Carlo Giuliani, the young protester shot dead by Italian police during the G8. The fliers promised pallbearers carrying a black cardboard coffin to the Italian Consulate in Portland’s World Trade Center. Nothing was ever said about die-ins.

At first, we marched silently, heads down. I focused on the worn combat boots of the woman in front of me. Her calves were impossibly thin — probably the circumference of my biceps — and she pounded her boots flat against the street with every step, as if counting out some private rhythm. Her shoulder blades slid visibly beneath her skin, and her torso was so long she seemed to have extra vertebrae — La Grande Odalisque, marching down Broadway. Unlike most of the others, she was not dressed in funeral attire. Instead, she had tied several red scarves around her head and fashioned a faux cardboard gas mask with red veils over the eyeholes, and a black garbage bag taped tight to her scalp. Suddenly, she turned and peered at me through the red netting, her eyes seeming to burn. She motioned for me to come close.

“Die-in when we get to The Oregonian,” she whispered. “Pass it on.”

Die-in. I imagined us acting out dramatic deaths — perhaps re-enacting the death of Carlo Giuliani. But I was not certain I had heard the woman correctly, or whether there was some secret ritual I was supposed to know. I had the sense I was being tested, that she was rating my performance. Yet it was precisely because she was watching that I could not muster the courage to wave any protesters toward me. It felt like middle school all over again — psst, pass it on.

A few minutes later, we arrived at The Oregonian, and everyone collapsed, laying their heads on the backs or abdomens of nearby strangers, arms flung outward, as if sprayed with bullets in the midst of a ballet.

A die-in, it turns out, is exactly what I imagined.

We have been lying here beneath ninety-degree sun for several minutes, faces and shoulders burning. I imagine a car rolling over my ribcage, how each bone would crack. Then several protesters stand up, raise their fists, and shout, “And the people!”

I jump to my feet and scream the familiar refrain: “Rise up!” We have screamed this before, but today, there is a certain charge in the air. We are rising from the dead.

The pallbearers lift the casket from the street. Next stop is the Italian Consulate. We know the Consulate will lock its doors — that no one will be present to witness our second die-in — but we march on.

_____

If you share a drink, sign a check, leave footprints on the lawn, lick your dinner fork, or spit on the street, you are handing over your most private information: your DNA, the unique tread of your shoe soles, your fingerprints. Is it reasonable to think your waiter will not swab saliva from your fork? That undercover agents are not waiting to measure and photograph every footprint? That all the traces you leave will be ignored, simply because you are innocent of any crimes — or, at least, have not been charged? Privacy is all about reasonable expectation. But reasonable expectations slip and slide as culture and technology change. What was reasonable this morning may not be reasonable next year.

In February 2003, John Nicholas Athan received a letter inviting him to join a class-action suit over parking tickets. The letter was a fake, created by the Seattle police in an effort to entice Athan into responding. If he did, the police hoped he might lick the envelope seal and unwittingly send a saliva sample through the postal system. They needed his DNA to resolve an old case — the murder of a girl who had lived in Athan’s neighborhood growing up.

Athan did respond. He tucked his reply inside the return envelope, licked, and dropped it in the mail. Within a few weeks, his saliva was scraped from the glue by a forensics lab, and John Nicholas Athan was charged with the 1982 rape and murder of Kristin Sumstad, whose eighty-seven pound body had been stuffed inside a cardboard TV box and dumped behind a store in the Magnolia neighborhood where Athan and Sumstad both lived. Athan was only fourteen at the time of the murder, but he was always the prime suspect. Witnesses saw him pushing a hand truck with a cardboard box the day Sumstad was killed.

Athan’s defense attorney fought the admissibility of the DNA evidence, arguing that police cannot pose as lawyers to deceive suspects. The court did not agree, ruling that there can be no expectation of privacy when you surrender information to another person, even an undercover officer.

Licking an envelope seal, it turns out, is the same thing as licking a laboratory slide.

No expectation. No privacy.

____

If you have ever paid a highway toll using EZ-Pass or unlocked your car with remote keys, you have encountered RFID or Radio Frequency Identification. RFID involves three components. The first is a chip or tag with a built-in antenna, and it can be attached to anything from cars to packages, clothing to electronics. The second is a reader. RFID readers send signals requesting information from the RFID tags, which respond by transmitting their unique serial codes. These codes identify individual objects, and they can be linked to various databases — the third component — containing everything from the size of a piece of clothing to the type of materials used to produce it, purchase price, date of purchase, and method of payment. Some RFID tags are being developed to link people to their medical records. None of this is widespread as of yet, but the technology is developing at a rapid pace.   Enterprise Charter School in Buffalo, New York, already requires students to wear RFID-embedded cards around their necks to track their arrival times, and it will soon use the technology for library loans, cafeteria purchases, and the tracking of disciplinary records, tardiness and nurse visits.

RFID should not be confused with bar codes. Bar codes are not unique; every bottle of a particular brand, size, and variety of shampoo uses the same bar code. RFID, on the other hand, could identify every individual bottle with its own unique serial number. Every bottle will be unique. Every bottle will be traceable. Its entire history – from factory to semi-truck to warehouse to grocery store to your cart – will be recorded.

Retailers want to install RFID readers on shopping carts, so as you wind through store aisles, computers can remind you of previous purchases — by reading chips in your credit cards or ID and accessing a customer database, similar to recommendations on Amazon.com. All your binges — cheese sticks and ice cream, fancy shoes and unused gym equipment — will be laid out before you like an exhibit, triggering familiar desires and spending patterns. Marketers and executives will know you better than your best friends do, and they will help you remember what you want. Who you really are.

When readers become more common, RFID sewn into your bra could transmit your breast size to horny teens or blind dates, serial killers or potential employers. Tags in your interview suit could reveal the price of the outfit, whether you charged it on credit, and when. Your husband or wife can check the logs on your clothing and keys, to track where you have been. Courts could subpoena the tags to verify alibis. Hackers could transmit information to the Internet.

Every object and moment will leave an electronic trail — a three-dimensional web of experiences and events, objects and evidence. What those around you might never notice — the stockpile of laxatives in your medicine cabinet, the credit card addiction, the stuffed bra, hotel visits with the mistress — computer databases will already know.

_____

The Cup and Saucer Café has red, sparkly booths, checkered tile floors, and a wait staff that wears combat boots, Birkenstocks, pink hair, and dreadlocks. I come here for vegan cornmeal pancakes and tofu scramble. Today, one waitress captures my attention. She is six feet tall, with thin, spiral curls that fall into her eyes, a pinched and bony nose, and the clearest, most colorless irises I have ever seen. Her neck is so long it looks like it could snap with a quick movement, and her spine curves forward from her shoulder blades to the nape of her neck, giving the impression of a lampshade or sunflower. I remember her from the funeral procession — the woman who whispered through the faux gas mask.

She notices me watching, does a quick double take, and disappears behind the counter, reappearing with a coffee pot a few moments later.

“Aren’t these coffee pots funny?” she says. “They remind me of seahorses.” She pours my coffee and tips the spout backward a few times, mimicking swimming or bobbing motions.

I smile and nod, although I cannot help but think she is the seahorse.

“Do I know you?” I ask, hoping she remembers me, too.

Maybe because I am still new here, or because the most public declarations — marching in the streets, carrying signs, spreading the word about die-ins — are treated like private documents, nobody who attends Portland protests will acknowledge me. The level of paranoia in Portland is at a fever pitch. Asking about a protest can get you shunned for weeks or months at a time.

It’s an interesting paradox, how activism requires a kind of public intimacy. This waitress knows more about me than just about anyone in Portland, and yet we maintain a vast distance between us.

____

Because most surveillance video only records at three frames per second — as opposed to the roughly thirty frame rate on regular NTSC tapes — the images flash too fast when played back on a normal VCR. The sequences resemble time-lapse photography. One second, a man walks through the convenience store door; the next, he is standing before the cash register. Often, the video resolution is quite poor. Tapes are reused so many times the quality degrades, and lighting is far from ideal.

This is where dTective software and Avid video systems come in. dTective uses plug-in applications to clean up low-quality video. First, the surveillance video is transferred from analog to digital format by storing it on a computer hard drive. Once digitized, the video can be manipulated in a variety of ways. Forensic video analysts slow down the playback. Now, when a man pushes open the convenience store door and walks to the cash register, the action moves slowly enough to be understood. While the missing frames cannot be filled in, the existing ones make sequential sense.

Since each pixel of video is stored as numerical data, mathematical averages can be used to eliminate visual noise. Say an armed robber shoots a liquor store clerk, and the video is too fuzzy to reveal his face. After the tape has been digitized, investigators can use the dVeloper plug-in to analyze a set of frames. Background and other images will appear as stable, unchanging numbers. Static will appear as wildly fluctuating values. The frames are then averaged to discover which visual information is common to all. Unstable numbers (or pixels) are filtered out, revealing sharper, clearer images. Suddenly, you are face-to-face with a killer.

Even crimes the camera missed are recorded, buried like lost memories, stamped like DNA into the tape.

____

On May 23, 2003, Jessica Williams was beaten and stabbed on Portland’s Steel Bridge. She was twenty-two years old, with the mental capacity of a twelve year old due to fetal alcohol syndrome, and although she had a home, she often lived on the streets. On the night of her murder, eleven members of her street family led her on a forced march from their campsite, whipped her with a belt, burned a cigarette into her skin, and forced her across the bridge to the east side of the Willamette River. There, they set her body on fire.

Not far from where she was found, a sign reads:

Notice: In connection with bridge operation, this facility will usually be under 24-hour recorded video surveillance. No fishing. No loitering. Motor vehicles prohibited.

Usually. So much power — and so many excuses — in that word. You never know when someone is watching. Do you take the risk and cross the bridge, knowing a killer could be lurking on either side? Do you take the risk and commit murder, knowing a camera could record your crime?

As I cross, I cannot help wondering about Jessica — if her last moments were recorded, how they looked flashing by at three frames per second. What protection does surveillance offer, when nobody watches the tapes in real time? Cameras cannot stop a stabbing or chase suspects away; only a person can do that.

Then I remember: the cameras are not here to protect us; they are here to protect the bridge.

____

Most RFID tags have no batteries. Radio signals provide the power, the charge, the spark that brings them to life. In other words, they are charged by the interest that is shown in them.

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September 2001, Washington, D.C., weeks after 9/11: A fellow anti-war protester snaps my photograph and threatens to post it on the Internet, exposing me as FBI. She has followed me into suspicious stores, witnessed me eating with suspicious men, and knows I stay in hotel rooms instead of activist centers while traveling to protests in other cities. I was once spotted talking to a man with a walkie-talkie. And then there is my clothing.

I am not FBI. But I feel a secret charge from her accusations. I am unique enough to be suspicious. At long last, I have been recognized.

____

Katie Poirier was working alone at DJ’s Expressway in Moose Lake, Minnesota, when a man entered the store, grabbed her by the neck, and dragged her outside. A surveillance camera recorded the abduction. NASA’s Video Image Stabilization and Registration — or VISAR — technology was used to clean up the tape, revealing that the man wore a New York Yankees shirt with the number twenty-three. Thanks to the shirt, the kidnapper was later recognized as Donald Blom.

All that was left of Katie were a few charred bones and one tooth — found in a fire pit on Blom’s property. The damage was so extensive there was no hope of testing the DNA. But just two weeks before Katie disappeared, she’d had dental work on her lower left second molar — tooth number eighteen, the same tooth found in the fire pit. The dentist replaced an old filling using a sample of 3M Rely X Arc. Rely X Arc contained zirconium — at the time, the only dental adhesive with that ingredient. At trial, forensic odontologist Dr. Ann Norlander identified the tooth, and therefore Katie, but Rely X Arc cinched it.

Dental adhesive was more unique than her tooth.

____

Radio Frequency Identification. Just for now, I like the sound of it. I like the idea of identity transmitted through air — a little black box for when I plunge into the river, disappear from the bus stop, hike into the desert and never return.

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Today’s newspaper tells the story of a woman who set fire to a house, kidnapped a ten-day-old infant from inside, and, for six years, raised the baby as her own. Meanwhile, authorities presumed the baby burned to death. The body must have been incinerated, police said. Bone fragments were all that was left.

This is exactly what the kidnapper planned. If the baby were dead, she would not be listed as a missing person. No missing person, no kidnapping. No kidnapping, no crime.

The baby’s mother, though, had questions. Why was the crib empty when she ran into the nursery? Why was the window open?

Fast forward to January 2004. This mother attends a birthday party, where she recognizes her long-lost daughter among the toddlers. She leans down and pretends to pry bubble gum from the girl’s hair, yanking a handful of DNA for the forensics lab.

And the child allows a stranger to tug hair from her scalp, never once demanding to see the gum — the search warrant, the justification for this violation.

And the DNA matches. And in that instant, a dead child becomes a missing one.

____

Imagine: every shoe, sweater, computer, soda can, film canister, library book, automobile, hairbrush, hard drive, cereal box, bracelet, garter belt, make-up mirror, stuffed animal, wood beam, bicycle, and piece of plastic junk on the planet, each with its own unique RFID. Someday, we will be able to line up one hundred identical pop cans and tell them apart with one zap of a radio signal.

Do we all become missing people, now that we can be found?