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Irresponsible Reporting on RFID
Facts are important, because people can't make good decisions without them—but many journalists don't seem to care.
Aug 23, 2010—Several people accused me of going over the top in a recent blog post in which I commented on a cyber-security segment by PBS NewsHour that had a brief and grossly misleading mention of radio frequency identification (see PBS NewsHour Misinforms Viewers on RFID). I wrote: "OK, PBS NewsHour, if your ratings are not what you want them to be and you are prepared to mislead people to obtain them, then please don't say on the 'About Us' portion of your Web site that you are 'one of the most trusted news programs in television.' Instead, say something more accurate, like 'We ascribe to the National Enquirer standards of journalism.'"
Upon reflection, I realize that my comments were out of line. The Enquirer often seems to simply make up false information in order to boost its readership (though I don't know that for sure). NewsHour didn't make anything up. It just quoted someone—security consultant Chris Paget—who provided grossly misleading information about RFID, without checking his facts or providing an alternative viewpoint. A producer for the series told me that his team was at a cyber-security convention, Paget was there as well, and there was really no way to easily get a counterpoint.
NewsHour did do a follow-up piece on its Web site—which didn't set the facts straight, but at least quoted me to provide an alternative viewpoint (see PBS NewsHour Responds to RFID Journal and Radio Frequency Identification Tags: Identity Theft Danger or Modern Aid?).
I quickly learned that facts were essential—not only because they informed the story, but also because people's livelihoods and reputations were often at stake. In the late 1980s, I spent two years researching and writing an investigative book about how Britain was handing Hong Kong back to China. I interviewed more than 150 individuals to reveal what the British government was agreeing to, without the knowledge or consent of the Hong Kong people. Every fact had at least two sources, often more. I kept reminding myself that I needed to be open-minded and follow the facts wherever they led.
I'm frustrated that journalists reporting on RFID don't take the time to understand the technology and learn the facts. It is certainly legitimate for Paget to demonstrate that he can read ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) tags from a distance of 200 feet. But if the NewsHour reporter had understood the difference between UHF and high-frequency (HF) technologies—or had checked with an objective expert before filing his report—he would not have accepted Paget's claims as gospel. He might have asked what data could be captured. And if Paget had said passport and credit-card information, the reporter could then have pointed out that credit cards and passports employ HF tags, not UHF tags, and that Paget was unable to read HF tags from 200 feet.
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