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California Legislature Probes RFID

At an informational hearing, a subcommittee on technology learned about potential privacy concerns.
By Bob Violino
Aug 19, 2003Aug. 20, 2003 - It was a landmark of sorts. Sen. Debra Bowen, chair of the Senate Subcommittee on New Technologies, held the first-ever hearings on the privacy implications of RFID technology on Aug. 18. But the committee came to no conclusions on whether legislation might be needed to protect consumers' privacy.
Sen. Bowen

The session was called by Sen. Bowen because she felt there was a need to raise awareness of the privacy issue and educate her colleagues and the public about the benefits of RFID and the potential privacy implications when it is used to track consumer items.

"There's already been a heated debate, but the California Legislature starts from a neutral stance, not judging the technology to be good or bad," Bowen told RFID Journal. "We're trying to understand how it works and what the issues are. Now, we have a better understanding of those things."

Four people spoke before the committee. Dan Mullen, the Interim CEO of the Association for Automatic Identification and Data Capture Technologies (AIM), presented the industry's view. He said that AIM is well aware of the privacy issues surrounding RFID and that it would work with the appropriate groups to develop safeguards. He also pointed out that it’s not clear that there will ever be business benefits to tracking individual consumer items, such as cans of soft drink.

Beth Givens, founder and director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, warned that the "association of personal identity with the object’s unique identity will enable both profiling and location tracking." She called for an independent assessment of the technology and outlined a series of proposals to protect consumer privacy.

The committee also heard from Katherine Albrecht, founder of CASPIAN (Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering) and Greg Pottie, deputy director of the Center for Embedded Networked Sensing.

Kevin Ashton, executive director of the Auto-ID Center was invited to speak but was unable to attend. Ashton submitted written testimony, which explained the center's work. He said the center was in the final stages of drafting a policy paper that would call for giving consumers notification, choice and control.

Bowen said her biggest concern is the potential to link the RFID tag in an object with the purchaser of that object through a credit card number. "It's one thing to know a pair of Nike sneakers just came through the door," she says. "But level of concern rises when you know who is wearing those sneakers."

Bowen plans to hold more hearings so the committee can get a deeper understanding of the technology. She said it's too early to propose legislation, but she envisions forming a working group to consider establishing some privacy standards for RFID. Her main goal, she said, was to raise the social issues around RFID early so they can be addressed before companies invest millions in the technology and its too late to build safeguards into the systems.

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