The Uproar Over RFID
Well, a decade later, we now have a better understanding of the pros, cons and most importantly, the reality of the Internet.
The good: E-mail has brought us closer to our family, friends and business associates. Instant news from a multitude of voices from across the globe can be accessed at the touch of a button.
The bad: The increased connectivity brought with it Internet child predators; the wider availability of pornography, spam e-mail; and new ways for criminals to rip off the innocent consumer.
Debate over RFIDToday, a very similar debate is raging about an emerging technology known as radio frequency identification (RFID), which is growing rapidly in security systems from card access to asset tracking.
Producers and potential users of the technology proclaim RFID as the greatest thing since, well, the Internet. According to them, RFID will help manufacturers and retailers track inventory, lower prices, reduce theft and provide a safer product to the consumer. To others, RFID is “Big Brother” in the form of a microchip. To these folks, RFIDs are just a method for businesses to track the sale of a product from the point-of-purchase to the customer’s home, and possibly beyond. As with most highly touted technology claims, the reality eventually should fall somewhere in the middle.
RFID relies on miniature and relatively inexpensive microchips. Smaller than a grain of sand, the chips are programmed to listen to a specific radio frequency and respond by transmitting a unique signal.
RFID technology currently is used in lost pet identification and transponders that automatically pay highway tolls. It is the upcoming retailers’ use of RFIDs, however, that has caused a loud and growing uproar from various privacy advocates. Businesses and their security operations are eager to utilize RFID tags because they allow companies to accurately track a specific product from its point of sale directly to the consumer, and in the process, provide comprehensive information to the retailer and manufacturer.
The technology differs greatly from commonly used barcode systems because RFID tags enable retailers to follow product inventory as a group as well as individually, and allow much more information about the product to be tracked accurately.
Some privacy advocates have a quite different attitude when it comes to RFIDs. Rather than the technology becoming a boon to retailers and consumers, they see these tiny microchips embedded in products as an impending outrageous invasion of one’s privacy. Since these RFID tags can remain active even after the customer leaves the store, this, of course, raises myriad confidentiality issues.
The organization, Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering (CASPIAN), is calling for federal legislation requiring mandatory disclosures on consumer products containing RFIDs. Their proposed legislation, known as the RFID Right to Know Act, would require companies to label all products that contain RFID tags, and make it illegal for companies to link the chips with personally identifying information. For more information on CASPIAN, visit www.nocards.org.
Retailers are increasingly experimenting with the technology. In one test market, a major retailer is working with a top razor manufacturer to track the sale of its products. Some industry experts predict that as big retailers push their suppliers to place RFIDs in products, the price of the microchips will fall to the point where virtually all consumer products will have them embedded by as early as 2005.
Potential for misuseThe European Central Bank is pondering the integration of RFID into the Euro in the very near future. RFID is a technology that, if left unchecked, would likely go too far in invading elements of consumer privacy. On the other hand, the legitimate uses of RFIDs are numerous and significant.
Will the information generated by RFID be correlated to specific people? Can and will they automatically be disabled once customers leave the store? Such privacy issues need to be addressed by courts, consumer groups and government agencies.