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Two Visions of an RFID-Enabled Future

There are both dark and sunny versions of what the world might look like when RFID becomes ubiquitous. So why is all the focus on the dark version?
By Mark Roberti
Feb 11, 2008Here is what Associated Press "investigative reporter" Todd Lewan thinks the world might look like in a few years when radio frequency identification technologies become widespread:

• Microchips with antennas will be embedded in virtually everything people buy, wear, drive and read, enabling retailers and law enforcement agencies to track consumer items—and, by extension, consumers—wherever they go, from a distance.
• A seamless, global network of electronic "sniffers" will scan radio tags in myriad public settings, identifying people and their tastes instantly so that customized ads—"live spam"—will be able to be beamed at them.
• In "Smart Homes," sensors built into walls, floors and appliances will inventory possessions, record eating habits and monitor medicine cabinets—all the while, silently reporting data to marketers eager for a peek into the occupants' private lives.

Here's an alternative version of an RFID-enabled future:

• Consumers will be able to get information on the entire history of the products they buy. For example, reading a tag on a steak they purchase will enable them to get information from the seller's Web site about where the beef came from, where the cow was raised, what the cow was fed, where it was slaughtered and the temperature at which the meat was maintained while in transit.
• Deaths and illnesses from food-borne diseases will be cut dramatically due to the ability to track shipments that need to be recalled, and to trace problems to their source.
• Far fewer consumers will unknowingly purchase counterfeit drugs that are ineffective or, worse, deadly because RFID will enable the secure tracking of drugs from the moment they are manufactured to the moment they are consumed.
• Deaths in hospitals due to the wrong patients receiving the right drugs, or the right patients the wrong drugs, will be completely eliminated due to the ability of RFID to identify both patients and drugs and sound an alarm before a mistake occurs.
• Recycling will be greatly improved by the ability to identify objects that should not end up in a landfill.
• The cost of goods will fall dramatically due to greater efficiencies in the supply chain.
• The supply chain, parcel shipments and passenger flights will become safer because of the ability to identify cargo and trace it back to its point of origin.

The problem is that Lewan isn't the only reporter focused on the dark side, and the articles they write influence many legislators and regulators in the United States and Europe. As a result, those legislators are considering bills that could kill all the potential positive benefits of RFID. Unfortunately, it seems those who hold a darker vision of the future may have done a better job of selling it than the RFID industry has done in promoting the benefits.

Of course, neither vision described above will fully come to fruition. RFID is neither the end of privacy as we know it, nor the savior of mankind. But what comes to pass will undoubtedly be far closer to the positive version than the negative. To believe the negative vision of the world will come about, you must assume several "facts":

1. RFID is undetectable, allowing companies to spy on people without their knowledge
2. Companies will benefit from spying on their customers
3. Consumers will not have any choice but to shop at retailers that spy on them.


Reader 2008-02-26 04:14:05 AM
Manufacturing Great article, I feel there is more good than bad from the use of RFID. If I wanted to invest could you point me in the direction of any major companies that are making these devices? I am especially interested in companies working with our government. Drew
Logan Zintsmaster 2008-03-13 02:54:19 PM
Don't Know Until It Is Too Late The problem with the "dark side" is you don't know its there until it is too late. Who imagined that your telephone would become a marketing tool with calls at all hours of the day when Bell said, "Mr Watson, come here. I need you"? Who imagined the flood of spam that email would generate when the Internet was established? Who imagined that chat rooms would become the hangouts for all sorts of predators? Whether we see it or not the dark side is always there, waiting to be exploited. We must take care not to let the bright lights of the positive prevent us from seeing what lurks in the shadows.

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