Big Brother Knows What You’re Vaping


In another response to the anti-vaping hysteria, a new technology called Trace/Verify embeds a tiny RFID chip into vaping devices to track users. The technology is ostensibly promoted as a way to prevent underage users from vaping.

The obvious and most logical solution to the problem of underage users – which is massively overstated – does not lie in intrusive technology, but rather, in continued enforcement of existing laws and industry practices, including ID checks and fines for violators, which currently are in place and work very well. In general, the best approach for keeping vapes from underage users is to apply the very same strategies used for alcohol and tobacco. It’s true, occasionally a high school student will succeed in buying a six-pack of beer or a bottle of cheap wine – yet nobody is seriously advocating putting tracking chips on every bottle of Boone’s Farm. And while everyone is rightly concerned about underage smoking, nobody is thinking about putting tracking chips on cigarette packages, either. The reason is painfully obvious. The more mature alcohol and tobacco industries would simply not stand for it, nor would legislators from regions that depend heavily on those industries. Since the vaping industry is newer and does not have anywhere near the power and money that Big Tobacco has, it is an easy target for those who would compromise our right to privacy for the sake of a nebulous goal.

The RFID chip and accompanying software are meant to allow law enforcement authorities and others to track a vaping product to the point of sale. The idea is that when a vaping product is purchased, the customer’s ID would be scanned and linked to each individual product’s RFID chip. Law enforcement, school officials, parents, or anybody with a mobile phone could then scan the product and obtain customer information and purchase details. A potentially even greater threat to privacy is that this personal information is also stored in the cloud, which would create an instant vulnerability and an attractive target for hackers.

Several obvious problems arise from the chip’s potential use. First of all, the issue of responsibility: Suppose, for example, a teenager takes a vaping item from an adult, who purchased it legally, and is then identified and caught with it. Would this mean the adult who legally bought the vaping device would be held legally responsible and possibly subject to a civil penalty, even if the teenager took it without the adult’s knowledge?

The stated purpose of the chip is to prevent underage vapers from purchasing e-cigarettes, but in reality, the system does not accomplish anything more than a simple ID check would. Finally, the extra step of having to scan an ID would not only pose an extra burden on retailers, but it would also potentially cause concerns for buyers who are of legal age as well. Any buyer interested in privacy would certainly hesitate to buy a vaping product with a computer chip holding personal information, and would rightly object to having his or her personal data uploaded to the cloud. An unintended consequence of this intrusion would be that more people would simply avoid vaping out of privacy concerns and stick with far more dangerous combustible cigarettes instead.

The founder of Trace/Verify, Dave Morris, a former manufacturer of e-liquids, defends the concept, saying that it is the industry’s responsibility to take action to keep vaping out of the hands of underage users. In fact, the industry has already done just that, often by going above and beyond what is required by law. Most reputable retailers have already gotten on board with the age requirements, which depending on the municipality, may also require vaping liquids and devices to be sold in a separate closed-off section of the store. Those who prefer to buy vaping liquid online are also held to a high standard, both by the government and by online vendors themselves, who often go above the legal requirement to ensure that products are being sold only to adults who are old enough to buy them.

Trace/Verify was not the first to think up this intrusive idea. Juul recently launched a “smart vape” product in the UK which is Internet-enabled and tied to an app to verify users with facial recognition. The device, the Juul C1, does have some useful functions, such as the ability to measure usage, which could be very productive for someone using e-cigarettes as a smoking cessation tool. But it goes a little overboard with facial recognition and a two-step background check with third-party databases, and the potential for a GPS-enabled tracking feature in the future.

Now, not only will Big Brother know that I have purchased a vape, they may also be able to know what I look like, how often I vape and where I do it. Will the next step be the creation of “smart booze,” which measures how many drinks I take (and would perhaps send a warning notice to my wife after three drinks), and whether I prefer a martini or a Manhattan? Or we may even move such nanny-statist approaches to everything that may be unhealthy, with smart chips measuring my consumption of Snickers bars. Vaping devices and e-cigarettes with tracking devices is a move too far for a free society to take.

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