Globe and Mail Fraud

Canada’s largest newspaper has done a disservice to its readers by badly misinforming them about what RFID technology means for consumers today and in the future.
Published: December 12, 2008

I get requests for interviews all the time from journalists who want to write a story attacking RFID as a tool for the invasion of consumer privacy. They need someone they can quote who is pro-RFID so they can tell themselves that they’ve made the story fair and balanced. Some journalists actually listen to me, read the RFID Journal site and write fairly balanced stories. Others, such as Dawn Rae Downton, a freelance contributor to the Globe and Mail, Canada’s largest newspaper, toss fairness and facts to the wind.

I don’t normally waste much time trying to correct the record, but Downton’s story is so pathetic it warrants some comment. This article is the medical equivalent of removing the wrong leg on patient and then sewing it back on backwards.

The factual errors come fast and furious. Here are a few:

“Radio Frequency Identification, or RFID, is surveillance technology at its finest—cheap, invisible, infallible, ubiquitous—and privacy advocates abhor it.” Well, no, it’s not cheap, it’s not invisible, it is fallible and it is far from ubiquitous. And frankly, most privacy advocates don’t abhor it. They see its potential benefits and want to limit potential abuses. Only one privacy advocate abhors it and that appears to be the only person other than me Downton bothered to interview.

“Benetton was the first large retailer to find out the hard way that not everyone likes being watched. In 2003, consumer outrage forced it to recall millions of garments it had embedded with microchips.” “Well, no. There was no consumer outrage and Benetton didn’t recall a single article of clothing with embedded microchips.

And that’s just in the first three paragraphs.

She quotes me saying that companies have been sensitive to privacy concerns but leaves out the context provided. She then let’s Katherine Albrecht, founder of Caspian, take this cheap shot: “Promoters have a lot more funding these days to make their case. Privacy advocates don’t get as much press,” she says from her office in New York. “RFID fans have considerable respect for the ethics of corporations, too. Often, they’re paid by them.”

I wasn’t, of course, given a chance to respond. And obviously Downton isn’t bright enough to figure out that Albrecht has her own ulterior motives that have nothing to do with protecting consumers from invasion of privacy.

The article goes on to say: “In fact, at item-level tagging you have actual linkage [to a consumer’s credit card information], since details of your purchase are archived along with your credit-card information and other particulars of your private life. Your details are even matched with those on file for your family and associates.” Where she gets this from is beyond me. It’s made up out of whole cloth, since no such system exists. Is this what passes for journalism in Canada?

More nonsense: “But businesses sell data routinely, and Mr. Roberti himself has written about data-sharing between Wal-Mart, Target and a host of manufacturers.” Well, no, companies don’t sell information about specific customers, and I wrote that Wal-Mart shares information with specific manufacturers about where that manufacturer’s products are in Wal-Mart’s supply chain. I’ve written extensively about how Wal-Mart will never share customer data with Target or even with its suppliers.

Downton makes huge leaps that ignore facts and have nothing to do with how systems are being and will be deployed: “In the U.S., patients are RFID-equipped on admission to hospital. Soon the tagging of patients, health records and prescriptions may seem like everyone at the party is having a look inside your medicine cabinet—and not just those you have authorized.” Does she really believe this is happening?

It’s hard to imagine how such nonsense got into a decent paper like the Globe and Mail. Articles like this hurt the public by completely misrepresenting how RFID will be used and misinforming people who could benefit from the technology. Perhaps one day someone Downton loves will be saved by an RFID system designed to prevent the hundreds of thousands of medical errors that occur each year and she’ll suddenly wake up and realize what a dolt she’s been.