RFID’s Achilles Heel

Concerns about companies abusing RFID technology to spy on customers threaten to prevent consumers from realizing many of the benefits of the technology.
Published: October 4, 2006

The radio frequency identification industry is celebrating the good news: California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed SB 768, the Identity Information Protection Act of 2006, which, had he signed it into law, would have put some curbs on how RFID could be used in identification documents issued by state and local governments and agencies.

But I’m not celebrating. I fear that the industry is winning the battles over legislation and losing the war for the hearts and minds of consumers.

Opponents of RFID can paint me as a cold-hearted capitalist who is selling out the public for personal gain, but those who know me know that I believe very strongly and passionately that RFID will have many benefits for consumers—safer food and drugs, more secure ports and greater shopping conveniences to name a few. I’m growing increasingly concerned that the press in the United States is so overwhelmingly negative toward RFID that companies that could benefit from using it won’t for fear of being tarred and feathered in the media.

American Eagle Outfitters recently issued a press release saying it doesn’t use RFID and has no immediate plans to do so. Apparel companies running RFID pilots are afraid to talk publicly about what they are doing for fear of getting bad press. Makers of contactless smart cards that use RFID for transactions are calling journalists who use the term RFID to say their technology is not RFID. This is not a good thing.

I recently said the industry needs to do more (It’s Time to Address Privacy), which prompted a response from James S. Childress, chairman of the board of AIM Global, the association for companies’ automatic data capture and mobility technologies, as well as follow-up calls with several companies and associations that have been hard at work on the privacy issue (Information Technology Association of America, Progress and Freedom Foundation) and several companies that have been doing a lot (Symbol, Savi Technology).

I didn’t mean to give these efforts short shrift in my editorial. The work these groups are doing, both publicly and behind the scenes, is important. I guess my editorial should have been titled: “It’s Time to Start a Sustained Consumer Education Program.” But that’s not exactly catchy.

I have been proposing to anyone who will listen—end users of RFID, vendors, trade associations and so on—that we can’t assume privacy concerns will just fade away as people get more comfortable with the technology. We need to be upfront about the potential privacy issues associated with the technology. We need to educate end users about those issues, so we don’t have so many bungled implementations that scare people (the U.S. State Department’s use of RFID in passports failed to address concerns, as did implementations in schools and elsewhere).

We also need someone who helps educate the public regarding all the positive things about RFID so consumers hear about all the potential benefits RFID can bring them—and is already bringing many people. I’m not sure we can turn the tide in the United States. Perhaps with concerns about government encroaching on civil liberties as part of the fight against terrorism and continued business and government scandals, it might be that anything the RFID industry does is just sand against the wind.

My feeling is that we need to do something to try to get the facts out. We don’t need to sell consumers on the technology. We just have to inform them about potential abuses and potential benefits. If consumers have all the facts about RFID, I feel confident they will embrace the technology and avoid retailers that don’t respect their privacy. If we fail to get the facts out, then consumers will be swayed by a small minority of people who want to decide what’s right for everyone else, and by journalists who are more interested in publishing scare stories than educating their readers. That would be a real shame.