i've finally realized they are RFID tags. i had bought some clothing yesterday and was annoyed that i had no scissors with which to cut them off. i asked my roommate for some scissors and we proceeded to have a conversation about the purpose of the tags. i conjectured that the tags are there to keep you from washing the clothing and then returning it. this conjecture holds for the tags that could be little packets of ink. i remember, however, that my roommate aliza once said she never cuts off the tags and is fine.
after cutting off one of the tags i held it up to the light and made a shocking discovery. it was an RFID tag! you know, the ones that are stuck on to various things you buy from target-like stores and fall out books you order. (RFID stands for "radio-frequency identification" and the tags, which store information, can be read from several meters away and does not have to be in the line of sight of the reader. for basic information, read Wikipedia on RFID. )
i found it very interesting that my clothing comes with RFID tags. it makes a lot of sense, since it is more effective than using bar codes. i am sure they use the tags for purposes of scanning etc. within the store, but tagging clothing with RFID potentially gives stores much more power. if you don't cut off your tags, they could potentially do a lot more (possibly unethical things) to track how/where the clothes are being worn.
one lesson is that RFID tags are much more powerful than barcodes. first of all, you can't just cover it up. i quote source 1:
"Surveillance is getting easier, cheaper, smaller, and ubiquitous. Sure, it's possible to destroy an RFID tag. You can crush it, puncture it, or microwave it (but be careful of fires!). You can't drown it, however, and you can't demagnetize it. And washing RFID-tagged clothes won't remove the chips, since they're specifically designed to withstand years of wearing, washing, and drying. You could remove the chip from your jeans, but you'd have to find it first."
a more practical thing to get out of this is you should remove your tags so that you don't set off alarms when you go into stores. (please see source 3 below.) apparently many people have had the embarrassing/inconvenient experience of setting off alarms because they neglected to remove tags.
in reference to a conversation i had with aliza and josh sharp last summer about the government's ability to track us, i would also like to quote source 2 to show that i am not unnecessarily paranoid:
"At this point, you can be triangulated and tracked based on your cell phone signal, even when you're not talking on it. "