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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
For example, a recent e-passport demonstration showed how an RFID passport could be skimmed and cloned. While it is important to get the issue on the table, it is also important to realize the true implications this type of scenario has for consumers. According to the Smartcard Alliance, this cloning was equivalent to simply taking someone else's passport and attempting to pass it off as one's own (see Industry Group Says E-Passport Clone Poses Little Risk). In fact, the e-passport is likely more secure since a digital biometric photo cannot be altered in this cloning scenario, whereas a non-RFID passport could have its printed photo readily substituted.

Another recent report, "The Use of RFID for Human Identification," seemed to suggest RFID offers little benefit other than for miners or firefighters "when compared to the consequences it brings for privacy and data integrity" (see DHS Subcommittee Advises Against RFID) This draft report, written by an advisory group to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, clearly overlooks applications such as those in health care for patient tracking and medication administration. Patient tracking can be used in an emergency department for customer convenience in much the same way that we use pagers in restaurant queues today. It can help ensure patients are seen by medical staff in a timely manner and receive the level of care they require. Use of RFID for medication administration can help ensure the right patient gets the right medication at the right time, while helping reduce the medical error rate and substantially save lives.

Another example is the use of RFID in theme parks to help track missing children so their parents can quickly locate them. This serves as a valuable safety device to help reduce the stress from accidental separation and can even prevent potential abductions.

Privacy and security are not mutually exclusive.

Policy makers and end users of identity programs often presume that they need to make a choice between privacy and security. That is, they believe they either must take the privacy side and legislate against or refuse to use these systems, or opt for the interests of national security and their own personal security, and give up some of their privacy. In truth, however, this decision does not need to be a binary one: It is possible to create identity programs that offer both security and privacy.

Emerging technologies such as RFID and biometrics can actually help to improve privacy and security by providing stronger forms of authentication and, hence, assertion of an individual's identity. Such technology solutions can help to combat the problem of identity theft by removing the need to rely solely upon weaker forms of authentication such as user names, passwords and PINs. Given the current statistics on levels of identity theft and data loss of consumers' personally identifiable information, it is important not to legislate too fast or fixate on only a small portion of the problem space.

The debate must occur, but it must be well formed and well considered, and the potential benefits given equal consideration.

Nicholas D. Evans is a vice president in the Strategic Program Office at Unisys. He is the author of Business Innovation and Disruptive Technology (Financial Times, Prentice Hall) and chairs the RFID Standards Task Group for the Information Technology Association of America.

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