RFID and Guilt By Association

The media portrays anyone in favor of the use of RFID as being evil.
Published: September 17, 2006

My friend Sam Toperoff makes documentaries. A few year’s ago, he proposed doing a documentary about people’s lives after they’d become the center of media attention. He was going to focus on people such as Richard Jewell, the security guard accused of planting the bomb that killed four people during the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. By the time Jewell was cleared in 2005, when Eric Rudolph pleaded guilty to the bombing, his life had been wrecked by the media, which took the view that it was an open book to rummage through in search of anything that might indicate guilt. Last month, Jewell was honored by Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue.

The interesting thing is that Sam couldn’t get any television station interested in his idea for a documentary. Media companies didn’t want to focus attention on the fact that they make mistakes, destroy people’s lives and move on.

I bring this up because it bothers me that the media often portrays leading early adopters and vendors of radio frequency identification technology as evil, greedy people who want to take advantage of consumers in every way they can, and who regard consumer privacy as something to be trampled on. Information is used out of context, twisted and sometimes just plain made up to make it appear that companies are using RFID to hurt consumers, when that’s just not the case.

There’s no doubt some business people have done a lot of bad things. Enron is a major example, but there are plenty of examples of immoral behavior on a smaller scale (remember the Web sites for kids that were collecting data on 12-year-olds?). But just because some businesspeople are evil, that doesn’t give journalists the right to treat all businesspeople as being evil and driven only by commercial gain, any more than journalists should assume all priests are evil because a small minority abuse young boys. And while some companies might have business practices that you don’t like—Wal-Mart has been under attack of late by journalists, consumer groups and some politicians because of its pay and benefits policies, for instance—that doesn’t mean its use of RFID is unethical.

I know many of the leading players in the RFID industry personally, and there are a great many that I respect a lot, including Mike O’Shea of Kimberly-Clark, Dick Cantwell of Procter & Gamble/Gillette, Gerd Wolfram of Metro, Simon Langford of Wal-Mart and James Stafford of Marks & Spencer. These are people who work hard every day to increase their company’s profits, for sure. But they are focused on supply-chain efficiencies and are taking steps not to trample on consumers’ rights to privacy to achieve that.

The RFID industry needs to make sure the technology it produces is not used in ways that infringe on privacy; otherwise, the technology will be rejected by consumers. Those companies that have legitimate aspirations for using RFID in a retail setting also have to make sure the technology is not abused. This is why I think we need to create a forum to promote best practices (see It’s Time to Address Privacy).

It’s my hope that those leaders in the RFID industry who understand there is no business value in spying on their customers will stand up and support an organization that will help to educate businesses and consumers about RFID and promote its responsible use. The more people understand about RFID, the harder it will be for journalists to paint responsible RFID users as evil-doers. And if they expose companies that don’t act responsibly, we’ll be behind them.