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Consumers Are Watching You

By Mark Roberti
Jun 01, 2005It was inevitable that a technology that could be used to identify and track people, as well as products, remotely via unseen radio waves was going to raise privacy concerns. Recent pilots and planned implementations of radio frequency identification technologies that failed to address legitimate privacy concerns have only fed suspicions among a number of privacy advocates, journalists and consumers.

In January, a pilot of an RFID system that would automate attendance taking at Brittan Elementary School in Sutter, Calif., was canceled, because the school failed to inform parents. Some complained about their children being tracked. More recently, the U.S. State Department was forced to reevaluate a proposed RFID passport system because of concerns that the transponders could be read surreptitiously by terrorists looking to target Americans (see Passport to Success).

In each of these cases and several others, organizations deploying RFID naively assumed that because they had no malevolent intentions, consumers would accept the technology. They failed to appreciate the depth of concern that a large segment of the population in North America and Europe has about the issue of privacy. (Cultural norms in Asia and Latin America make privacy less of a hot-button issue. For more on regional attitudes toward RFID and privacy, see Privacy: A Western Construct and The Economics of Privacy.)

If you’re a manufacturer or retailer whose focus is on deploying Electronic Product Code technologies in the supply chain, you may be wondering what the privacy brouhaha has to do with your business. The answer: everything. Privacy advocates, lawmakers and even consumers are tracking your every movement. They’re looking for evidence that you want to use RFID to track their spending habits, amass databases and sell information about them to others.

Even if you have no intention of infringing on your customers’ privacy, these concerns are real and you need to address them. In our cover story, “Privacy and Profits,” we spell out the best practices companies should follow to protect privacy, build trust and enhance customer loyalty. In the end, the deployments that incorporate these practices are the ones that will succeed.

Some may say I’m being naive—that profits come from collecting data about customers. They assume consumers won’t care how retailers use RFID in stores. But recent events show there are enough people who care to stop a deployment in its tracks. And it will only take a few retailers with a cavalier attitude toward privacy in order for legislators to step in and regulate RFID in ways that will prevent many potential consumer applications from ever being developed.

The RFID community as a whole has a responsibility to ensure that there are the technological means to protect privacy, as well as established practices for how RFID can and can’t be used. It’s up to all of us to build trust with consumers by protecting their privacy. Let’s watch each other.

Mark Roberti is the founder and editor of RFID Journal. If you would like to comment on this article, click on the link below.
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