NPR logo Tracking The Tracker: Bathroom Lurker Revealed

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Tracking The Tracker: Bathroom Lurker Revealed

If you ask me, geotagging is the next tsunami — from tagging digital photos to putting barcodes and RFIDs on building walls. As the Web goes more mobile, the barrier between the physical and virtual worlds is being dissolved. But I never knew it would come to tagging a men's room at an airport.

Sure, today's airports are hubs of new technology. And granted, I was at Reagan National, just down from the Pentagon. But I was still surprised to see this little black tracking disk stuck on the wall.

The object in question. The placement seems really passive-aggressive — blatant, and yet inscrutable... and, cemented. Bill Chappell/NPR hide caption

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Bill Chappell/NPR

My first response was to think of the hi-jinks the kids these days get up to. Maybe some enthusiastic Swedish tech-heads were here, I thought, and embedded this tag to send GPS readers to a diatribe defending Pirate Bay.

Or perhaps it's more esoteric — part of an underground Tardis movement that half-jokingly tries to keep track of mundane, and yet needed, rooms.

So, I started poking around on the 'net and found a Flickr image just like the one I was considering posting: "I saw this thing — what the hell is it?"

After more digging, the consensus is that they're RFID (radio-frequency identification) disks that track the rounds made by security guards. They wave a baton over the tag, and it records that they've checked in at the location.

Turns out there's a surprisingly robust news site devoted entirely to RFID (didn't I tell you this was a big deal?). And I found out where you can buy them yourself — they're cheap!

But I still wanted to know — where do these things come from? From what I can tell: Shenzhen, China — a company with the futuristically vapid name of Roxtron.

So, yeah, Big Brother is watching. Or, at least, waiting for some dude to pass by in the men's room and wave a wand at him.