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One Problem, Many Solutions

There are many ways to prevent people from using RFID to infringe on people's privacy—and some products are hitting the market even before most consumer items have tags.
By Mark Roberti
Jun 26, 2006If you listen to opponents of radio frequency identification, their arguments are built on two suppositions: First, they argue that big corporations have all the power, and that consumers won't be able to prevent companies from spying on them through RFID tags in the things they buy. Second, they suggest there is no way to prevent surreptitious reading, or skimming, of RFID tags; a corollary to this is that the technology will improve to the point where you can track anyone, anywhere.

Both of these suppositions are wrong.

The first supposition plays on people's sense of powerlessness, assuming the business community is a unified bloc that acts in concert, whereas in reality, businesses are in constant competition and operate quite separately of each other. Moreover, in a capitalist system, customers have all the power, because they can choose not to shop at a retailer infringing on their privacy.

There will always be companies willing to appeal to a competitor's disaffected customers. I've said in the past that it is the capitalist system itself that will protect consumers from potential abuses of RFID technology (see Faith in the System and Faith in the System, Part II).

The second supposition—skimming—will also be solved by the capitalist system. It might be true that some unscrupulous individuals will find a way to abuse RFID technology's capabilities, but it's always seemed patently obvious to me that others will see opportunities to profit by offering products that protect people's privacy.

My faith in the system is not misplaced. A number of companies and individuals are already introducing products that could help consumers protect themselves from the possibility that RFID will be used to invade their privacy. IBM, for instance, has come up with a "clipped tag" that continues to operate after an item is purchased, but at a greatly reduced read range (see IBM Proposes Privacy-Protecting Tag).

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