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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.
By Mark Roberti
Jun 28, 2010I 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.

Trash recycling at the curb now tracks, with RFID technology, who recycles and who does not. Those who do receive "rewards" for their efforts based on recycling volume, and receive payment based on information created with RFID. My understanding is one of the goals of RFID is to eventually track each item recycled or trashed, using RFID technology. What is recycled/trashed will be uploaded to direct-marketing businesses and other interested parties for a fee.

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.


2010-07-01 07:46:06 AM
Marketing Manager Here's a blurb from our blog: http://www.xerafy.com/blog Commenting on your article. Lately, the Internet of Things has been all the buzz and is the connecting of everyday objects and devices to large databases and networks via RFID, GPS, Bluetooth, NFC etc. It will turn static objects into dynamic things, create intelligence in our environment and will dramatically change the way we live, interact and connect forever. Politicians billed it as the next stage of development for technology-enabled living -- many governments around the world are now looking to building advanced IT-based infrastructures and ubiquitous information services into the urban spaces. With this comes the benefit of integrated information processing which industrial products and everyday objects will take on smart characteristics and capabilities. They may also take on electronic identities that can be queried remotely or be equipped with sensors for detecting physical changes around them. RFID is probably the most mature and pivotal of these technologies with established standardization protocols and existing commercial applications. With new advances in technology, such as embedded RFID and nanotechnology, it means that smaller and a greater number of things will have the ability to be tagged and connected in a sensory and intelligent manner. Internet of Things is a digital interplay of people, technology and e-governance with real and virtual environments. Imagine the future, sans flying cars and hot tub time machines, when public recycling bins use RFID to credit recyclers every time they toss in a bottle; pressure-sensitive floors in the homes of older people that can detect the impact of a fall and immediately contact help; cell phones that store identification records and can be used to pay at retail stores. Ubiquitous, convenient but when the data is used inappropriately for whatever reasons; it raises privacy concerns and the specter of a surveillance society. (They'll know whether I recycled my beer bottle?!)
Sami heino 2010-07-02 04:40:53 AM
Well said "...are opposed to laws that limit the technology, but we are in favor of those that restrict bad behavior. " This is very well put. I would also said that this is the whole point. "...I worry that ignorant legislators trying to score points with uninformed voters will pass laws that limit the many benefits RFID can deliver—and that is a much bigger threat to consumers. " "Funny", but these same ignorant legislators seem to have no objections against any other thing/method/technology that can be used to track anyone by any means;)

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