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Ubiquitous RFID and Privacy
As radio frequency identification proliferates, the potential for abusing the technology will rise—but democratic capitalist societies have mechanisms to respond to and limit abuses.
Jun 28, 2010—I received an e-mail from a reader in Michigan who expressed some concern regarding potential abuses of radio frequency identification. This did not come from some ill-informed opponent of the technology, so I think it's worth quoting in detail before I respond:
I would like to pose a question that you might want to address within the scope of promoting RFID technology. I am opposed to the proliferation of this technology. My concern is not where [RFID] is now—in its infancy—but where it is going. I wonder if you might have the courage to address the direction of tracking as it pertains to the tracking of a private person's lifestyle with RFID. I will give you one example, but you know many more [where] your industry might be heading.
The direct-marketing industry works hard to glean our private information, even using less-than-honest methods like college-scholarship search engines, taking advantage of our young children to glean private information. It is this side of your business that needs to be addressed.
This is a valid concern, and it's one I have thought deeply about over the past eight years. Today, most companies are looking at RFID as a way to improve their operations, but as the technology becomes ubiquitous—and RFID is on most packaging and embedded in some items—there will be opportunities to analyze the data collected, and that will, as my correspondent suggests, gain the attention of marketers. But I also believe that democratic capitalist societies have mechanisms to respond to and limit abuses.
One check is that those who employ RFID data inappropriately will fail to realize the benefits they set out to achieve in the first place. Let me provide a few examples.
RFID tags used in toll-collection systems could be utilized to reduce speeding. Police could set up checkpoints 65 miles apart in a 65-mile-per-hour speed zone, and mail a ticket to every person who passes the second reader in less than one hour. Sounds like a great idea for raising revenue and reducing speeding, but no one has done this and the reason is simple: After getting your first ticket, you'd toss away your tag, and then the primary purpose of that tag—to reduce congestion at toll booths—would be lost.
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