Business 2.0 Gets It Wrong

By Mark Roberti

Senior Editor Chris Taylor says RFID might be derailed by concerns over privacy. Here’s why he’s wrong.

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You've got to give the folks at Business 2.0 credit for headline writing. A recent post about radio frequency identification by Chris Taylor, the magazine's senior editor, was titled "As RFID Tracking Booms, Privacy Issues Loom." Clever. Too bad most of the privacy stuff in the blog was a rehash of a lot of nonsense published elsewhere.

First, let's address the premise of the article broadly. The premise is that "RFID is a brilliant idea for business—but a lousy one for people." I couldn't disagree more with this blanket statement. If I were in the hospital, about to have an operation or any serious procedure, I would like the hospital staff to be able to identify me quickly and remotely with RFID, so that I wouldn't be mistakenly given medication I'm allergic to, or have my gallbladder removed when I was in for an appendix operation.

I would also like to be tracked if I worked in a building that caught fire, particularly one containing hazardous materials. That way, fire fighters could locate me if I were trapped inside—and they wouldn't have to rush into a burning building to save me if, in fact, I'd already gotten out.

I'd like to be tracked if I were a soldier in Iraq, wounded in battle. I would hate to be given morphine for the pain on the battlefield, then overdose upon receiving another shot a few minutes later on a helicopter, because the staff had no way to track who I was and what treatments I'd received.

I'm already being tracked when I travel from my home on Long Island to New York City. I use E-Zpass to zip through the tollbooths, and that can only be done if they can identify me as an individual and charge me. I save a ton of time—and so far, no one has infringed on my privacy.

Business 2.0 didn't mention any of these benefits, or even the fact that I might want to use a contactless smart card to pay quickly for my goods at a fast-food restaurant, movie theater or sports stadium. Instead, it focuses on some of the controversy that has been stirred up: "The technology is seen as vulnerable. You can buy parts to make an RFID reader for as little as $20. Unscrupulous vendors could, in theory, drain money from your credit card without your knowledge."

Really? Since when is money stored on a credit card? If it stored money on the card, then by definition, it would not be a credit card, now would it? "Duh!"

In fact, contactless credit cards store the same information on the face of the card—name, card number and expiry date. And you are more vulnerable giving your card to a waiter than you are walking the streets with one in your pocket because A) the waiter can see your signature and B) even if you were to buy a reader that could skim information from a credit card, the credit-card companies have systems for detecting fraudulent activity.

The article also says, "Terrorists could prime a bomb to go off when a particular individual walks past [an RFID reader], as London's Royal Academy of Engineering claimed last month." Sure, you might be concerned about this scenario if you believed terrorists are no longer trying to kill lots of people to make a statement and invoke widespread fear, and have instead shifted tactics toward identifying and killing individuals…but I doubt there are many people who think that makes a whole lot of sense—especially not the terrorists. (By the way, many people throughout Europe and Asia use RFID transit cards and credit cards, and no one has ever been targeted for execution in this manner.)

The article goes on to rehash protests against Gillette, Tesco and others for testing RFID in items people purchase. It seems to indicate that somehow these companies suffered from boycotts called by a few individuals. Not true. None of these companies saw a decline in sales, and all are committed to rolling out RFID. There is no "backlash" against the technology.

Consumers have embraced RFID in tickets, credit cards and toll-collection systems. And no one has suffered privacy invasion because of this. Unfortunately, that's not a sexy enough story for Business 2.0.