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RFID-Enabled IDs: Educate, Don't Legislate

Whenever we're faced with an emerging, unproven technology such as RFID-enabled identification documents, there is a premature urge to create laws restricting or stopping it.
By Nicholas D. Evans
In general, whenever we face an emerging technology that is relatively unknown and unproven, there is a tendency to legislate against it, or to attempt to mandate certain better-known approaches. While a healthy debate about privacy concerns is critical to the success of these large-scale programs—and any program that deals with consumer-sensitive information—it is important not to over-legislate against the use of technology before its strengths and weaknesses for a particular field of use are well understood.

The Home Office Identity Cards Scheme, the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative and the California bills are interesting, and ongoing, case studies of where the center of the debate—or even legislation, in the case of the California bills—can sometimes work counter to the best interests of consumers and government alike.

Legislation against a particular technology from use in certain application scenarios can limit technology innovation within the government, and benefits to citizens.

The two bills approved by the California Assembly Judiciary Committee, SB 433 and SB 1078, would put a three-year moratorium on the use of RFID technology for driver's licenses and student ID cards, respectively (see New RFID Bills Moving Through Calif. Assembly). These kinds of moratoriums, if adopted, would prevent the use of the technology before its relative pros and cons for use in these applications have been fully explored. If instituted on the national level, such moratoriums also would provide other countries with the time to innovate and explore these applications and potentially move ahead in their level of competitive advantage. Rather than ban the technology, which does little more than put the problem on ice for a given time period, we need to work with all parties concerned toward understanding the issues involved and solving them. (To its credit, the California Assembly removed such a moratorium from another bill, SB 768: See Calif. RFID Bill Drops Moratorium, Could Pass Senate.)

Prescriptive technology mandates can limit innovation and the competitive process.

On the flip side to the California bills, if legislation becomes too prescriptive in terms of the technology it recommends for a particular application (as opposed to barring a particular technology completely), it can also limit innovation and stifle competition.

The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative was established by the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 to require better documentation for individuals traveling across U.S. borders. Individuals will be required to present a passport or a frequent-traveler card known as PASS (People Access Security Service). Over time, there has been an ongoing debate between the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the State Department regarding what type of technology to use—some favor ISO RFID standards such as 14443 (the proximity card standard), while others prefer EPCglobal UHF RFID standards. Each has its pros and cons.

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