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Consumer Distorts

A recent article in "Consumer Reports" about the possible use of RFID to invade people's privacy does a disservice to consumers.
By Mark Roberti
Tags: Privacy
May 15, 2006Last month, I finally broke down and made the decision to replace my 14-year-old television. I did what I always do when I need to invest a significant sum in a new product: I logged on to the Consumer Reports Web site and did a search for reviews of the best TVs on the market. The top-rated flat-screen TV was a Panasonic, so that's the model I bought. Unfortunately, my faith in Consumer Reports, long a boon to consumers, was shaken when I received the current print issue in the mail. It features an article entitled "The End of Privacy," which does a grave disservice to consumers.

The article starts out proclaiming, "Oh, for the good old days when Big Brother merely watched you. Soon, he'll be coming home with you in what you buy, wear, drive and read." Clearly, objectivity was not what the writer was after.

CR's article trots out many of the stories told by Katherine Albrecht, founder of Consumers Against Supermarket Invasion and Numbering (CASPIAN), the most vocal opponent of RFID. There are references to tracking patents filed in 2001—before privacy became an issue for the industry—and a 2002 consumer opinion study from the Auto-ID Center showing that 78 percent out of 317 people surveyed "reacted negatively" to the privacy issue. More recent consumer surveys, showing a far more favorable view of RFID, are conveniently ignored.

Of course, the story doesn't mention that consumers have overwhelmingly embraced RFID for toll collection, electronic payments and other applications, nor does it mention that tens of millions of consumers around the world use radio frequency identification technologies every single day. The author also does not bother to point out that in all that time, not a single incident of privacy invasion has ever been reported (at least, not that I'm aware of).

In addition, some of the information in the story is factually inaccurate. The writer says all tags in clothes, shoes and so on would be "capable of broadcasting to a database that can be linked to your credit card." As a result, the article claims, "the potential for corporate and government snooping rises to a new level." Sounds pretty scary, but don't believe the hype—passive tags don't broadcast information, and there is no big database in the sky with everyone's information in it. Furthermore, it's just not true that "a high-tech thief [could] break into the tags and cull your banking and medical information." (Such sensitive data is rarely ever stored on RFID tags.)

The author accepts the CASPIAN worldview, that all businesspeople are evil and the only reason anyone would want to adopt this technology is to spy on customers. I'm quoted in the article making the point that it's not in a company's financial interests to invade their customers' privacy, but that quote is thrown in merely as a token viewpoint. Like Albrecht, the author doesn't present a single example of a company ever having used RFID to invade privacy. Rather, the article merely discusses what could be possible, then leaves the consumer with the impression that it will definitely happen.


William Penrose 2006-05-18 07:03:32 PM
Consumer Distorts? Putting a paper bag over your head and announcing that RFID is no threat to privacy is begging for trouble. The fact is that RFID tags can be used for illegal or immoral purposes, including government snooping. If the industry doesn't address this issue, consumers are pretty soon going to become aware of the potential for abuse, and they are going to bite you in the butt. How many women, for example, are aware of the potential use of RFID tags by stalkers and abusive ex-husbands? When they find out, all hell is going to break loose. You better be ready with something more than smart remarks. Merely hurling sarcasm and abuse at whistleblowers isn't going to help. W Penrose

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