Addressing Fears About RFID

By Mark Roberti

The industry and end users need to be proactive to alleviate consumer concerns that RFID tags can be hidden in clothing and other products.

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On March 12, 2003, Philips Semiconductors (now NXP) announced it would ship 15 million high-frequency radio frequency identification tags for use by Benetton in its Sisley line of clothes. Within days, a previously obscure organization called Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering (CASPIAN) was calling for a boycott of Benetton and telling every journalist who would listen that RFID tags in clothes would be used by marketers to spy on their customers.

More than five years later, the dynamics of the debate over RFID and privacy have changed little, even though manufacturers and retailers have taken steps to address concerns. Most apparel manufacturers have opted to tag clothing by placing the RFID transponder in a hangtag or on packaging that's removed by the customer after the purchase, rather than embedding the tag in the item. And retailers have not associated RFID serial numbers with individual customers, to avoid any appearance that the tag could be used to track customers.

Yet Katherine Albrecht, founder of CASPIAN, continues to get significant press coverage with claims that marketers and the government will use RFID to spy on unsuspecting individuals. Even Scientific American, a magazine that has published articles by more than 120 Nobel laureates, recently ran a six-page story by Albrecht titled "How RFID Tags Could Be Used to Track Unsuspecting People." In the article she writes:

"During the past decade a shift toward embedding chips in individual consumer goods and, now, official identity documents has created a new set of privacy and security problems precisely because RFID is such a powerful tracking technology. Very little security is built into the tags themselves, and existing laws offer people scant protection from being surreptitiously tracked and profiled while living an increasingly tagged life."

There hasn't been a shift toward embedding RFID tags in individual consumer goods, but there has been a move toward embedding RFID in identity documents, most notably passports. That, coupled with false claims about tags being embedded in clothes, has enabled her to keep the fear alive that people will be tracked without their knowledge through RFID transponders they carry. Although many countries are taking steps to prevent "skimming"—surreptitiously reading data stored in an RFID tag without a person's knowledge—the media continues to give Albrecht a soapbox because she generates anxiety, and anxiety gets people to read magazines and blogs or watch television news ("Could your child be killed by eating Cheerios? Find out by tuning in to the Late News at 11").

The anxiety stems from the claim that companies or government agencies could track you without your knowledge, and that claim has persisted for five years because on a superficial level it's believable. You can't see radio waves, so people don't know when a tag they might be carrying is being read. They don't know when they're being tracked, what the data might be used for, or how to stop it.

But there is an inherent contradiction in the claim that RFID could be used to track you with tags hidden in your clothes. Albrecht warns: "Anyone with a readily available reader device—unscrupulous marketers, government agents, stalkers, thieves and just plain snoops—can also access the data on the licenses to remotely track people without their knowledge or consent." But if that's true, it also means that anyone with a reader could scan items and discover the hidden tags so they could be removed. The very thing Albrecht finds dangerous about RFID tags—that anyone can read them—is also what prevents them from being hidden in consumer items.

Long before it's common for consumers to have RFID readers, journalists and privacy advocates will be able to purchase them and expose companies that try to hide tags in clothing and other items people carry. And if stores do use readers without letting customers know, they, too, will be easily exposed. An RFID reader can be hidden from view behind a wall, just as a video camera can be hidden behind tinted glass. But unlike a video camera, the RFID reader must emit energy to read tags, and it would be easy for any engineering student to create an inexpensive device that detects RF energy and finds hidden readers.

Albrecht has argued for five years that companies would use RFID to spy on their customers because every marketer craves more information on what potential customers want to buy, and RFID makes it possible to get valuable information. RFID Journal has argued that marketers would not spy on their customers because, while they do want more information, RFID doesn't provide much valuable information (companies already get information on purchase preferences from bar codes), and because it would be disastrous for any company to be exposed as spying on its customers without their knowledge. The potential loss of sales from such exposure is far greater than any potential improvement in sales from using RFID to get information on individual customers.

Companies using RFID need to understand that the tags are not undetectable. If they do use RFID without letting their customers know—even if their aim is to reduce theft, not track customers—tags and readers will be discovered and they will be accused of spying on their customers (rightly or wrongly).

The RFID industry and end users need to explain to journalists and the public that RFID tags and readers cannot be hidden from anyone with a reader. Once consumers no longer feel anxious about RFID, the media will refrain from publishing articles like the one in Scientific American.

Without that anxiety, consumers would be open to learning about possible benefits, such as a safer food and drug supply, faster returns or repairs, better availability of the products they want to buy, and the ability to improve border security. Privacy and security issues would still come up, but rather than reflexively turning to Albrecht for an anxiety-inducing quote, the media might tap real experts who could explain the potential risks and potential remedies. In other words, with the fear of surreptitious scanning removed, the debate will become less emotional, and that's what RFID technology providers and users want.