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Gov't Agencies Do Not Consider RFID Legal Issues

The U.S. Government Accountability Office this month released a report on RFID which broadly and, at about 30 pages, concisely discusses most aspects of RFID and its associated applications and issues.
May 31, 2005This article was originally published by RFID Update.

May 31, 2005—The U.S. Government Accountability Office, whose stated mission is "to support Congress in meeting its constitutional responsibilities and to help improve the performance and accountability of the federal government for the American people," this month released a report on RFID entitled Radio Frequency Identification in the Federal Government. Despite its title, the report broadly and, at about 30 pages, concisely discusses most aspects of RFID and its associated applications and issues, not just those concerning the U.S. government. It is recommended to those new to the technology as well as knowledgeable people needing a big-picture refresher.

It is common knowledge that the Department of Defense is the U.S. agency most active in RFID and that Homeland Security, NASA, and the State Department also have initiatives underway. What may be surprising is that the report names an additional nine agencies that are currently using or have immediate plans to use RFID: the Departments of Energy, Health and Human Services, Labor, Transportation, Veterans Affairs, the Social Security Administration, the Department of the Treasury, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the General Services Administration. The majority of the RFID applications at these thirteen agencies are familiar ones like supply chain and logistics visibility, document and records tracking, special materials management, and access control. But "audible prescription reading" by Veterans Affairs and the highly-publicized electronic passport initiative by the State Department represent compelling, nonstandard uses of RFID. The report notes that other agencies that are not undergoing implementations of their own may be substantially involved in RFID initiatives indirectly. The Food and Drug Administration with its promotion of RFID for pharmaceutical tracking and the Department of Agriculture with its endorsement of RFID for livestock tracking are cited as two examples.

Notable in the report's findings is that only one of the agencies (which the report does not name) acknowledged potential legal issues surrounding its use of RFID. Given that the report itself devotes about seven pages to an in-depth discussion of RFID privacy and security issues, it is curious that U.S. government agencies collectively do not consider the legal implications of RFID usage to be relevant. Granted, many of the agencies' plans for RFID do not go beyond supply chain or asset tracking, a self-contained and rather innocuous realm with respect to its affect on the average U.S. citizen. But there are enough other applications listed that certainly would affect Joe Citizen -- RFID passports, immigrations and customs applications, access control, and prescription reading -- that those agencies which neglected to mention potential legal issues seem remiss in their omission. Hopefully the report will encourage the decision makers at these agencies to consider such issues with the attention and care that the report itself does.

Read the full report (PDF)
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