About RFID and Your Garbage

A recent article published on Slate.com suggests that radio frequency identification will make it easy for criminals or marketers to scan your trash and know what you purchased. Here's why you have nothing to worry about.
Published: November 5, 2012

I came across an article published on Slate’s Web site, titled “Why We Need New Rights to Privacy.” The author, Evan Selinger, argues that technology makes it easier to capture and share information that consumers might not necessarily want the world to know. While I agree with his general point, his references to radio frequency identification reveal a level of ignorance about the technology.

The article starts off by discussing Zillow, a Web site that makes information publicly available regarding the sale of homes, as well as whether a homeowner has defaulted on his or her mortgage. This information was previously available, but difficult and time-consuming to obtain. Now, Zillow makes it accessible to anyone with a browser and an Internet connection.

The author cites a 2007 SMU Law Review article by University of Colorado Law School professor Harry Surden, claiming consumer privacy is threatened by technologies that make it easier to gather information about us. I agree with that sentiment, and I agree that new laws might be required—or that old laws might need to be revised—in order to account for technologies that did not exist when the laws were written.

However, I take issue with his use of RFID as an example of a technology that lowers the barriers to collecting data about consumers. He posits that tags might one day be placed on all objects, and that readers might become cheap enough that every household will own one. (I agree with both of these points.) The author then says: “Under current technological constraints, dumpster-diving is not for the faint of heart or sensitive of nose. Trash can be smelly, messy and time-consuming to sort through. Moreover, because garbage inspection is an unusual practice—typically reserved for law enforcement, private detectives, paparazzi, and recycling inspectors—it can easily draw unwanted attention. But RFID technology could allow the process to be done discreetly, quickly, and at a safe distance.

“In that case,” he writes, “people who never considered rummaging through garbage before might give it try. Let’s say you’re a boss who is worried that an employee’s productivity has decreased because the person has become an alcoholic. Why not drive past his house and see just how many bottles he consumed that week? If you’re hell-bent on having a gotcha moment, you might even draw the wrong conclusions about what you find—not realizing, for example, that the empties belong to an employee’s college-age kids who were visiting home during a break.”

There are a couple of problems with his theory. The tags only contain a serial number, so your boss would have to match strings of numbers to company IDs and product IDs issued by GS1. That’s a barrier to virtual dumpster diving. Moreover, all Electronic Product Code (EPC) tags likely to be used on consumer products can be permanently deactivated. This could be accomplished at the store, or a consumer equipped with an RFID reader could potentially do it at home.

Finally, the author doesn’t seem to be aware that newer EPC tags have a privacy mode, so the serial number can be hidden from nosy bosses. The advantage of this feature is that tags could be rendered useless at the point of sale, but if a customer returns the item, the serial number could be revealed and used for warrantee purposes or reverse logistics.

As I said, I agree that there might be areas in which new laws are necessary to protect privacy—but the RFID industry has already addressed many of the concerns that have been raised about the technology.

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, the Editor’s Note archive or RFID Connect.