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RFID-Enabled IDs: Educate, Don't Legislate

Whenever we're faced with an emerging, unproven technology such as RFID-enabled identification documents, there is a premature urge to create laws restricting or stopping it.
By Nicholas D. Evans
Aug 28, 2006This year, we have seen considerable controversy over government identity programs such as the U.K.'s Home Office Identity Cards Scheme and the U.S.'s Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) and Real ID Act, as well as bills that legislate against the use of RFID such as those proposed recently in California regarding driver's licenses and student IDs.

These efforts have garnered the spotlight from all angles, including both religious and privacy activists. RFID technology and the Real ID Act for example, have been likened to the "Mark of the Beast" foretold in the Bible. Privacy advocates have voiced opposition on a number of levels, including Big Brother concerns, skimming and tracking fears and, in particular, apprehensions about the viability of the technologies that are at the heart of these programs—everything from RFID to smart cards and biometrics.


While these technologies have been around for a long time, their use in the field of human identification is relatively new—at least, on the broad scale now underway. Starting in 2008, the U.K. Identity Cards Scheme will force everyone over the age of 16 applying for a passport to have their personal biometric details—including fingerprints, eye or facial scans—added to a national identity register. For this reason, we can consider them emerging technologies since their field of use, or scale of use, is still maturing.

Throughout history, emerging technologies have faced the same level of scrutiny, and often mistrust, until they became familiar, better understood and eventually accepted by the masses. This is the basic technology-adoption lifecycle. An example from the industrial age is the locomotive engine. At that time, it was thought that traveling in excess of 30 miles per hour on one of these new locomotives would subject the human body to so much pressure that an individual would not be able to breathe. A more extreme example of technology mistrust involves the Luddites of the early 1800s, who smashed textile machines in various U.K. counties fearing the machines would make their skills obsolete.

The World Wide Web and wireless technologies are more recent examples of emerging technologies that initially met considerable hurdles but went on to benefit society. Identity technologies face many of the same privacy and security concerns that the World Wide Web and wireless technologies faced early on—and still face today. It goes without saying that such concerns are valid and must always be addressed. Fortunately, the market solves many of these problems by way of companies developing solutions specifically to help close the gaps and loopholes.

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