Fact-Checking the Los Angeles Times

An article on the use of RFID in cell phones is riddled with errors. Here are the facts.
Published: March 19, 2008

In a recent “Consumer Confidential” column in the Los Angeles Times, David Lazarus raises unnecessary fears of privacy abuse by grossly distorting the facts about radio frequency identification technology and its use in cell phones (see Cell phones to keep track of your purchases—and you).

Lazarus starts out with this line: “You might not know it, but as of January it became illegal in California for companies to require workers to have devices implanted under their skin that would reveal their whereabouts at all times.” Fact: RFID embedded under the skin has a read range of inches, so it can only reveal your whereabouts at all times if someone is following you around with an interrogator. Of course, if they are following you around, they really don’t need RFID to monitor your whereabouts.

Then he writes: “The same chip-based technology that California won’t allow to be forcibly placed under people’s skin will soon be ubiquitous in cell phones…” Well, no. The passive transponders used under the skin don’t have the security features built into the Near Field Communication (NFC) systems being introduced in some phones.

And then: “Virtually all leading cell phone makers are already introducing this technology to their handsets.” Really? The Near Field Communications Lab lists a grand total of seven models of commercially available and prototype phones, compared to the thousands of models on the market today.

And there’s more nonsense: Lazarus writes: “In theory, anyone—or any company or government agency—with a desire to do so would be able to identify you from as much as 300 feet away and track you as you go about your business.” Not true—neither in theory, nor in fact. NFC technology used in phones is a short-range technology, designed to allow you to pay for your stuff with your phone, but not for someone at the next checkout counter’s stuff. Moreover, many phones have a GPS transceiver in them, which would enable people to be tracked from miles away, so even if it were possible to be tracked with RFID, why would it be so alarming?

Lazarus goes on: “Your cell phone would be constantly broadcasting your location, along with, possibly, your name, address and other potentially sensitive information.” Later in the article, he writes: “Tags could be constantly beaming people’s name, address and bank account number to anyone capable of picking up the signal, potentially ushering in a new era of identity theft.”

Yeah, right. Cell phone companies hope to increase the use of cell phones by transmitting your bank account number to everyone within 300 feet? That seems more like a plan for how to go out of business. Did this guy even think before writing this nonsense?

And it just goes on and on. Lazarus talks about someone in a messy divorce subpoenaing phone company records, which he claims would show “not just where and when you made a purchase, but also precisely where you went afterward, and how long you stayed there.” Well, no, RFID can’t do that—but the GPS system already in your phone sure can.

Lazarus concludes his article by calling for regulation: “There were more than 243 million wireless subscribers nationwide as of June 2007. Considering the stakes, does anyone really think this is a technology that should be left to the honor system?”

The real question is: “Considering the mistakes in this article, should this guy be giving consumers advice on anything?

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 click here.