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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.
The Real Threat to Consumers
One great irony of this book is that the authors don't seem to understand that it is their desire to dictate the future—they want people to reject the use of RFID for all consumer applications—that represents a threat to consumers. Why? Because in their haste to destroy RFID technology, they also destroy the possibility that consumers could use RFID to get information about their government or companies that break the law.
Isn't it possible that two well-meaning authors could do more harm than good to the consumers they want to protect? Consider this Orwellian twist. Let's say two authors had decided in 1995 that the Internet represented a threat to privacy because it would enable governments and corporations to pry into our everyday lives and see what we read, what we buy, what our interests are. And let's say they succeeded in getting use of the Internet banned. Albrecht and McIntyre, who spread the word about RFID via their Web site, would never have had an opportunity to mobilize opposition to RFID, which they believe is bad, because there would be no World Wide Web.
The fact is, the Internet has led to a world in which consumers get far more information about companies than companies get about consumers, and RFID is likely to empower people in a similar way, because they will get more data on the products they buy. Thus, they will have the power to choose to buy or not buy products with tags in them—a point the authors make over and over in the book. Apparently, though, they aren't convinced people will make intelligent choices, because in spite of consumers’ ability to reject tagged products, they still call for a total ban of the technology—and they almost never mention all the potential consumer benefits of RFID. Moreover, when the authors do talk about some potential beneficial applications, they tend to suggest you'll be forced to accept a lot of negatives that go along with them.
Take the case of someone whose child is allergic to peanuts. The authors point out that NCR proposed a system where a tagged item, when placed in an RFID-enabled shopping cart, would be identified and its contents compared against the customer's profile in the retailer or manufacturer's database. If the customer has a child allergic to peanuts, the system would alert Mom or Dad to that fact through a computer screen mounted on the shopping cart, and the parent would know not to purchase that particular product.
The authors concede this "may be helpful to some people," but quickly add that you'd have to identify yourself in the store and let the manufacturer of the product track your every purchase to get this benefit. They fail to point out that this system would only work with the shopper’s expressed consent, or that it could work equally well anonymously. Customers who don't want their profiles stored in a retailer's database will likely be able to buy an RFID-enabled PDA that stores their private profiles. The PDA could go out to an Internet site hosted by one of those evil companies that wants you to buy their product (while simultaneously providing this information free of charge and protecting your privacy), download the information anonymously and alert the owner of a potential problem.
The authors oppose using RFID wristbands in hospitals to identify patients, even though you would think people would want to be correctly identified when having an operation or other medical procedure. They point out that only about 5 percent of the estimated 98,000 deaths from medical errors are caused by misidentification of the patient (e.g., the doctor gives Mr. Smith drugs, thinking he is Mr. Jones, and Mr. Smith dies of an allergic reaction). That's 4,900 deaths a year in the United States that could be prevented by RFID. The authors describe this tragic and avoidable loss of life as "at most a minor problem," failing to point out that that's only a part of the benefit RFID could bring to patients. RFID could prevent other tragic deaths, such as the case earlier this year in the United States where a girl who was properly identified was still given the wrong heart.
How many of the 98,000 deaths a year are caused by giving the right patient the wrong drug? I don't know, but the authors switch from discussing "medical errors" to "preventable deaths" in hospitals, which are caused by bedsores and pulmonary embolisms and things that RFID—or money spent on other technology—probably can't help.
Despite the numerous shortcomings of this book, it does serve a useful purpose. It highlights the need to have an open discussion about both the potential benefits and potential abuses of RFID. It's only through such a discussion that we will arrive at the best applications of the technology and the best possible future. If only the authors hadn't slanted their arguments so heavily, they would have done more to educate people and advance the debate.
Mark Roberti is the founder and editor of RFID Journal. If you would like to comment on this article, click on the link below.
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