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Thirsty Koreans fight duff whisky with mobiles

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What's the best way to tell if you're being given duff whisky? Ask your mobile phone, of course. At least, it is if you're in South Korea.

The Korea Times last week reported that the South Korean government intends to crack down on fraudulent whisky sales by making producers put Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID) chips in premium bottles.

"Starting next year, we plan to recommend local distillers incorporate RFID chips to their 21-year-old whiskey blends," Assistant Minister of Information and Communication Yang Jun-cheol told the Times.

"Then people will easily be able to check through their cell phones whether or not any whiskey is genuine. Plus, the tag will show other data like the distiller and the production date," Yang added.

This seems like lunacy at first, as the RFID chip would be attached to the bottle not the booze. Unscrupulous bartenders could still siphon off the good stuff and replace it with swill, and their luckless thirsty dupes' attempts to expose them using mobiles would be unavailing.

Presumably some crooked retailers, in the habit of putting fake labels on bottles of cheap rotgut, might be frustrated by this ploy. That said, the scoundrels could always use mobiles to find empty tagged bottles in rubbish bins, fill them up again with cheap pop and fool phone-toting connoisseurs with impunity.

To be fair to the Koreans, they don't actually seem all that bothered about people who'll buy top-end Scotch but need a mobile phone to tell them whether it's pukka. Twenty-year whisky is being pushed for tagging simply because it's expensive, and so the cost of the RFID tech might be worthwhile. As more chips get made, costs will fall and more products will become eligible.

"An RFID chip sold for 2,000 won (£1) in 2004 and the price fell to as low as 300 won (15p) now. However, it is still too expensive to use broadly," Yang said.

"The government looks to channel 311.9 billion won (£155m) to 16 RFID-related projects through 2012. This will prompt the shift to RFID," he added.

This suggests worrying social implications for this technology. Say you're visiting a friend's house, and he pours you a large gold medal. For whatever reason, you don't see the bottle - perhaps he uses a decanter, perhaps the drinks get brought through from the kitchen. Do you sneakily use your phone to scan his house for RFID tags? Imagine the horror as you taste cheap blended crap in your glass but detect several bottles of aged single malt in the swine's drinks cabinet.

And imagine the horrors of the future, once Yang's frightful government schemes have come to fruition and all kinds of stuff is tagged up. Intending merely to spy on your host's liquor supplies, you inadvertently scoop in full details of his afternoon purchases at the marital-aids emporium or the specialist lingerie supplier.

Even the famously unbothered-about-privacy Koreans might find they've got a tiger economy by the tail here.

The Korea Times report is here

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