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Spychips Book Fails to Make Its Case

The anti-RFID book by the leaders of CASPIAN doesn't provide any compelling evidence that the technology is a threat to privacy.
By Mark Roberti
Tags: Apparel
Ignoring History
The authors are very good at providing footnotes, which are meant to give the book the credibility of a well-researched tome. But the authors often ignore historical facts. For instance, more than 100,000 patents are granted in the United States alone each year, and it's widely known that the vast majority of these never become products. Several years ago, RFID Journal wrote about a company using RFID to track shopping carts around stores to measure customer flow. I'm not aware if any retailer deployed it, or if the vendor that created it is even in business, but the authors present their patent information as though these ideas will certainly be implemented in a couple of years and consumers won't be able to do anything except passively submit to being tracked.

It’s ironic that when the authors do present examples from history, they invariably show RFID will not be a threat to privacy. For instance, they explain that RFID could be used to identify you, track your purchase history and then adjust prices based on your ability to pay. The authors then explain that Amazon.com tried personalized pricing and had to stop the practice when consumers objected. So on one hand, the authors claim powerful corporations are going to force this technology on you, then on the other present solid evidence that powerful companies will back off on attempts to personalize pricing the moment consumers object.

It's fair to say that almost the entire book is based on the premise that evil corporations will force customers to wear clothing and carry objects that contain functioning RFID transponders so that these transponders can identify and track customers. The problem is, at the same time, the authors themselves present evidence that this is unlikely to happen. They rightly point out, for instance, that when a technology company announced it would sell Benetton RFID tags that Benetton planned to use in its Sisley line of clothing, CASPIAN opposed the move and Benetton dropped the plans.

The authors also conveniently ignore the fact that Marks & Spencer (M&S), the one retailer currently tagging clothing items, is putting the RFID tag on the price tag so that it will be cut off before being worn. And since the tag only contains a random number, scanning someone's garbage would not provide any information about the person who bought the garment. M&S has handled the privacy issue well (see Precedents Set). At RFID Journal LIVE! Europe, James Stafford, the head of M&S's RFID efforts, said he couldn't swear his company would never use RFID at the point of sale, but that he could see no advantages to outfitting cash registers with RFID interrogators.

The authors present research findings done several years ago by the Auto-ID Center, which they say showed that 75 percent of the public opposed the idea of putting RFID tags in clothes. In other words, readers are asked to believe that the companies derided throughout the book for wanting to sell you more of what you want to buy will suddenly put RFID transponders in products, even though 75 percent of the population might stop buying their products as a result.

This, of course, doesn’t make any sense whatsoever from a business—or common sense—standpoint. However, the authors’ penchant for ignoring evidence pales when compared to their pattern of misreading history, which they then use to suggest RFID will lead to totalitarianism.

USER COMMENTS

Bob Powell 2005-10-24 09:15:12 AM
Spy Chips I have read the book. This book puts the RFID puzzle together. I can not believe that You Mark Roberti did not read that. I think that being you are such a proponent that you do not care about the privacy issues involved. Hey that's me! And this is why I uploaded www.zombiewire.com and www.rfidetail.com to expose the RFID threat. regards, James Mata
Diane WING 2005-12-20 05:22:47 PM
The peasants aren't that stupid As a computer expert and marketer, I can tell you the arguments that RFID CAN'T be used for malicious tracking purposes just won't fly. There are too many computer/technology/security experts out there and the TALK to their friends. Suggest a more subtle approach since lying has been shown to really damage future credibility.
Bill English 2005-12-28 11:05:44 PM
spychips Come on. This technology can be abused just like any other technology, and given the history of similar technologies we can all be assured that it will be abused. Big Brother wasn't very nice.

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