Legislators Need to Do a Little Homework

Two bills pending in U.S. state legislatures seek to curb RFID, but their chief sponsors don't know the first thing about the technology.
Published: February 19, 2010

By Mark Roberti

I’m not sure why—maybe because it’s an election year—but state legislators are introducing bills designed to regulate the use of radio frequency identification technologies. This, in itself, isn’t a bad thing. If a new technology can be abused, I’m all for regulations that prevent its abuse. But I don’t see how legislators can propose regulating something they are so ignorant about.

Oklahoma State Rep. Paul Wesselhoft issued a press release announcing that he had filed an “anti-Big-Brother, big-government” bill. House Bill 2569, the release says, “protects Oklahomans driver’s licenses from government intrusion by preemptively disallowing state and local governments from tracking a person’s location or obtaining personal information from an individual’s driver’s license.”

But Wesselhoft doesn’t actually have a clue about how RFID can be used. “Through technology,” he writes, “government, corporate and private entities can track a person’s location and personal information if one’s driver’s license is embedded with a radio frequency identification (RFID) chip or special ink. They can be tracked by satellites, radio towers and even through doors in buildings as one walks through them.”

Reading a passive tag from a satellite? Resonant inks? I thought we got beyond this. No, Mr. Wesselhoft that is not possible. And unless the government installs readers in every single doorway in the country, it wouldn’t be possible to read a tag as they walk through a doorway either. It might be possible to read people’s RFID tags from 20 feet away, and there might be good reason for wanting to prevent governments and corporations and individuals from doing that without someone’s knowledge, but it sure would make some sense to understand a new technology before legislating against it.

Tennessee State Rep. Susan Lynn has proposed legislation that would prohibit any government agency or company in Tennessee from forcing someone to have a chip implanted in their body. One journalist wrote that Lynn was backing the legislation because of her strongly held Christian beliefs (some mistakenly believe RFID is the Mark of the Beast from the Bible).

Lynn says manufacturers are marketing RFID to “employers, insurance companies, health-care providers and the government as a way to keep track of people.” Really? Those guys need a lesson in marketing. Trying to sell a device with a read range of mere inches as a way to track people is a challenge. Would someone run around behind every citizen with a handheld interrogator? Or would you install readers every few inches or so, in order to track them?

In a letter responding to the journalist who she says mischaracterized her bill, Lynn writes: “The RFID chips in question are about the size of a grain of rice. They carry an identification number that is detected when the part of the body inserted with the chip is scanned with a detector—this number links to stored personal information. The only way to remove a chip from the body is through surgery. The RFID cannot act as a GPS type of device because it simply doesn’t have enough power in its small battery. Major concerns are that the chips have been known to migrate in the body and to cause cancer.”

Well, at least she understands that the tags can’t be read from a satellite. And when I wrote to her to explain that there is no battery, she did respond. The concerns about cancer seem to be dubious—but hey, if people want to legislate against mandatory implantation of RFID, I can’t oppose that.

Still, is that really the biggest concern of the folks in Tennessee, where the unemployment rate is more than 10 percent?

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.