Technology and the end of times...

[size=18]RFID: Sign of the (End) Times?[/size]

CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts -- Katherine Albrecht is on a mission from God.

The influential consumer advocate has written a new book warning her fellow Christians that radio frequency identification may evolve to become the "mark of the beast" -- meaning the technology is a sign that the end-times are drawing near.

"My goal as a Christian (is) to sound the alarm," said Albrecht, in a conversation over tea at a high-end grocery store.

Albrecht has been a leading opponent of RFID, which is fast becoming a part of passports and payment cards, and is widely expected to replace bar-code labels on consumer goods. RFID chips contain unique identification codes, and can be read at varying distances with special reader devices.

Albrecht hopes her new book, The Spychips Threat: Why Christians Should Resist RFID and Electronic Surveillance, will be embraced by the millions of Americans (59 percent of them, according to a 2002 Time/CNN poll) who share her belief that the Book of Revelation in the Bible forecasts events that are yet to come.

The Spychips Threat is in fact a Christianized version of its secular predecessor, Spychips: How Major Corporations and Government Plan to Track Your Every Move with RFID, which came out last fall.

Both books are published by the Christian publishing powerhouse Thomas Nelson. Both lay out the same totalitarian scenarios, based on documented plans by Philips, Procter and Gamble, Wal-Mart and other companies, along with the federal government, to track consumer goods and people individually.

Absent from the Christian version is the original foreword by the science fiction author and blogger Bruce Sterling. In its place, Albrecht and co-author Liz McIntyre have written an introduction that says that RFID chips, particularly the VeriChip subcutaneous implant designed for humans, bear an uncanny resemblance to "the mark" described in the Bible's Book of Revelation.

If the VeriChip becomes a common payment device similar to the "contactless" payment system in the Exxon Mobil Speedpass, all who wish to buy and sell goods will be compelled "to receive a mark on their right hand or on their foreheads," as it says in Revelation, the Spychips Threat authors contend.

Another passage in Revelation describes a vision in which "a foul and loathsome sore came upon the men who had the mark of the beast and those who worshiped his image." Albrecht and McIntyre write, ""Interestingly, an implanted RFID device like the VeriChip could potentially cause such a tormenting sore if it is subjected to a strong source of electromagnetic radiation," such as a directed energy weapon.

But fear not, says Boston University professor Richard Landes, who specializes in the history of apocalyptic thought. New technologies often trigger alarm among millenarians -- those who believe Christ is returning to Earth to set up a theocratic kingdom, but only after nonbelievers die most unpleasantly in a battle with the anti-Christ.

Y2K, bar codes and Social Security numbers all triggered end-times warnings, said Landes, who was co-founder and director of the Center for Millennial Studies at BU, which studied contemporary cult activities and end-times literature prior to 2000.

"Even the introduction of the Gutenberg press caused waves of apocalyptic thinking," said Landes.

Albrecht does not believe those who said bar code labels and Social Security numbers were "the mark of the beast" were completely wrong. Rather, those technologies were precursors to RFID, and steps toward totalitarianism, she said. "All of these technologies are of concern," said Albrecht. "I'd like to think I'd be speaking out against them, too, if I was around at the time they were introduced."

Albrecht's entry into the Christian book marketplace has not marginalized her voice in the media or with the RFID industry. Last week, Albrecht and her Spychips co-author, Liz McIntyre, made appearances on ABC-TV, The Osgood Files on the CBS Radio Network, and on the late night radio program, Coast to Coast AM. McIntyre was also quoted in a Financial Times article last month.

"I don't see any evidence of her being ostracized," said Mark Roberti, editor and founder of RFID Journal, an industry trade magazine. Roberti has appeared opposite Albrecht in debates in the media and at industry conferences.

But Richard Landes, the BU history professor, believes Albrecht may be among those who are seduced by the power of feeling like they are players at the center of world events.

"It's enormously attractive," said Landes. "If you believe you live in the end-times, then everything you do has meaning. You become a warrior, and everything is at stake."

Landes compared the feeling of sharing a collective, apocalyptic experience or narrative as like a near-death experience. "It's an intense, incredibly intimate experience," Landes said.

Albrecht sees little joy in what she predicts for RFID, however. "I hope I am wrong," she said, before leaving for an interview with ABC. "I'll take no pleasure in being proven right in a few years."