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Where the RFID Industry Has Failed

There is still a great deal of misunderstanding regarding what the technology is and does—and how it might be abused—that the industry needs to address.
By Mark Roberti
In all other cases, you need to use some other method to identify a person and then associate a tag ID in something he or she carries, in order to track that individual. Yet, the misunderstanding that reading a tag is equivalent to infringing privacy—often combined with "all RFID is the same"—persists, and is a favorite target of hackers, bloggers and some academics. (It's also one of the reasons I've felt so frustrated lately.) For a taste of how this myth is spread, see A Privacy Expert's Misguided View of RFID, Academic Navel Gazing Continues and PBS NewsHour Misinforms Viewers on RFID.

Many products have embedded RFID tags. I've read numerous articles that assume a lot of goods have embedded tags, or that quote so-called experts making this claim. In the PBS NewsHour piece on cybersecurity that I took issue with, for example, hacker Chris Paget said on camera, "You can find out all kinds of information about them from these RFID tags that are being issued to you by the government, by stores, and products you buy all over the place."

The problem with that notion is that almost no products currently have RFID tags embedded in them. And the few items that consumers might purchase with tags have them in hangtags or labels designed to be cut off, or in packaging that is thrown away. What's more, goods sold at Walmart that have RFID tags in their hangtags, labels or exterior packaging will carry the EPCglobal seal, indicating the presence of an RFID tag.

RFID opponents worry that criminals, overzealous government officials or nefarious businesspeople could sit in a parking lot and read tags on labels and packaging as consumers leave a store, or that they could scan an individual's garbage cans. This strikes me as very unlikely. All the perpetrators would obtain is a serial number—and even if criminals knew enough to figure out which product those numbers represented, it would be of little value to them. Criminals target people and homes that are vulnerable, not those with the nicest merchandise.

As I wrote in last week's Editor's Note (see Irresponsible Reporting on RFID), there are legitimate reasons to raise privacy concerns. But to solve any and all privacy issues so that governments, businesspeople and consumers can benefit from RFID technology, we need to have an ongoing intelligent discussion.

My advice to providers of RFID hardware, software and services—and to companies using the technology now—is to raise these issues every chance you get. Raise them every time you are interviewed by the press, and whenever you speak at an event. These myths are not easily dispelled. We need to keep repeating the facts until people understand them.

Mark Roberti is the founder and editor of RFID Journal. If you would like to comment on this article, click on the link below. To read more of Mark's opinions, visit the RFID Journal Blog or the Editor's Note archive.


Amy Thropp 2010-09-02 03:31:03 PM
RFID in Libraries I work for a Library RFID developer. We see this type of paranoia all the time. Questions we get are typically: 1. Can someone tell what I'm reading by scanning the tag? (No - no bibliographical data is stored on the tag, only the item id and you'd have to have access to the library's database to find out what that was.) 2. Can someone identify me by scanning the tag? (No - no biographical data is stored on the tag.) 3. Can someone follow me by scanning the tag? (No - RFID is not a GPS) So much mis-information.
Jim DelRossi 2010-09-03 02:00:10 PM
Excellent Call to Action Nice call, Mark. It is baffling that there is a constant reiteration of old myths and half truths without any reasonable fact checking with actual "sources". Probably good places to start are: 1) Commenting to the mistaken writers about better sources (RFID Journal springs to mind) and 2) responsible editing and annotation of Wikipedia pages since that appears to be the well often visited for these fouled waters.
JIGNESH PARIKH 2010-09-03 02:57:14 PM
RFID MISCONCEPTION I fully support your article & understand your frustration, but I thing that this misconception will go away once RFID becomes mass product. Today RFID suppliers sell their product at exuberant rate that we integrators never go beyond quotation & pilot level.
Vanwyck Richardson 2010-09-12 01:53:59 AM
Small Business Conspiritor Mark, you hit all the salient points, yet one contributing factor you may not have considered. I've noticed, just like the infant computer business in the eighties, many of the Dealers and Re-sellers get into the newest technological stuff thinking to hustle people with 'sizzle' as opposed to steak and get 'big' money for doing just the hustle; not providing a well- crafted and thought-out technological solution. It's as though the Marketing Department for the entire RFID industry works in the "Dilbert" comic strip and no one really understands the product yet tries to compete by trashing the other guy or his idea. Remember, anything I say may or may not be valid, As a past Purchasing Director who signed the first Franchise Distribution contract with Cyrix processors for the US, (the CPU David that went up against the Goliath, Intel), misinformation and deceit can become not only marketing tools for the sharks, but become a serious cancer that can grow from the inside that same shark and kill it dead. Some of it is can just be credited to braggadocio; the salesman or Exec who doesn't have a clue and couldn't buy a vowel with a pocket full of money. This is why I can't wait to start my own RFID Consulting business; I have a clue and know where all the free vowels can be found. Wish me luck, VanWyck
Ian Shelley 2010-09-16 01:13:49 AM
Managing Director ARN (SB) Pte Ltd I don't think this paranoia or stupidity will go away just because the technology becomes widely used (it is already). I do think we need to be robust in our challenges to the paranoid and stupid, especially when they pretend to know about security and are in a position to sway opinion against the industry. In one of many such discussions I asked someone why he thought governments would really be interested in waterproof RFID tags to track the brand of washing machine and detergent washing his CKs with other female undergarments? Beats me, and he couldn't figure it out either, but he was nonetheless worried that one day RFID would betray him.
Mark Roberti 2010-09-16 10:32:22 AM
All Good Thoughts I agree with many of the comments above. Some concerns will go away as the technology becomes clearer, some won't. As an industry, we need to be careful about campaigns to change opinion. That can look like an effort to sell consumers something that is not good for them. I believe RFID will benefit consumers, so I advocate the industry talking about these issues, as well as addressing them with technological solutions.

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