Privacy: A Western Construct

By Bimal Sareen

Asia's cultural, political and economic diversity makes it unlikely that RFID privacy issues will emerge here as they have in the West.

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Asia, home to more than 50 percent of humankind, is waking up to RFID. The continent contains lands of diverse people, cultures and political systems. India, the world's most populous democracy, is flanked by dictatorships, military states and kingdoms. China, the world's largest Communist country, has successfully managed to sustain a trade surplus in excess of $100 billion and is rapidly emerging as the world's manufacturing hub. But the very fact of Asia's cultural, political and economic diversity makes it unlikely that RFID privacy issues will emerge here as they have in the West. More likely, RFID will be accepted for the value it offers, even as Asian countries learn practical lessons from the U.S. and European experience with the technology.

The free press in the United States and Europe has played a critical role in shaping the public perception that RFID is a technology with significant privacy implications. Things are very different across Asia, where the press freedom is not uniform, and is generally less free, and the concept of social privacy is neither pervasive nor uniform.

Differing Views of Morality and Ethics

Asian culture holds many varying definitions of morality and ethics: What may be morally unacceptable in the United States may not be an issue in many Asian countries and vice versa. Similarly, the definition of business ethics varies by country and, in many cases, within different parts of the same country.

Most Asian countries are part of the developing world. In developing countries, other factors-like basic infrastructural necessities such as clean drinking water, power, affordable communications, housing and three meals per day-dominate governmental agendas; privacy-related issues are often of secondary concern.

Many Asian governments are not full democracies and have varying levels of freedom. In many cases, governmental sensitivity to personal privacy is lacking. To add to this, a number of governments are "omniscient" and, if they desire, have access to and control of most aspects of private life. This lack of privacy is less of an issue, especially where other important factors like food for the family, clean drinking water and a good infrastructure for conducting business dominate the priorities.

India has been discussing a privacy law for some time now. Currently, items typically associated with an individual's privacy profile-Social Security number, mother's maiden name, date of birth or fingerprints-are freely handed out by local citizens. In India, many less educated people use a thumbprint in lieu of a signature, and all fingers are printed when people register a land deed at the registrar. Most commercial organizations know the mother's maiden name of their customers and require the date of birth, which customers freely provide. In fact, people who resist giving their birth date or fingerprint attract glaring stares.

However, as the citizens of this rapidly growing economy are also rapidly increasing in buying power, marketing companies, many of which are unscrupulous in their techniques, are easily extracting information from unsuspecting consumers to build Western-style databases.

In India, the adoption of credit and smart cards is raising awareness today of confidentiality and secure access rather than of privacy. Indians seem to commonly believe that information about oneself is not truly confidential. In a society where personal information is known by many, Indian citizens would like confidential and secure access for their financial transactions first. Personal privacy, although desirable, is usually of lower priority.

Indian Law Focuses on Data Theft

India's closest attempt at privacy-protection legislation is the Information Technology Act of 2000. This act includes provisions that cover unauthorized access and data theft from computers and networks, with a violation penalty of approximately $200,000. At the same time, however, the act does not have specific provisions for privacy of data.

India's success in the outsourcing business seems to have hastened consideration of an amendment to the Information Technology Act. New clauses will be added that will conform to the European Union's Data Protection Directive and the U.S. Safe Haven privacy norms. Customers in the United States and Europe are having a positive effect and are primary drivers of adopting strict security and confidentiality norms.

China has its own concepts of privacy. Although it is likely to consider data protection laws for its global clients, the personal privacy concerns of Chinese citizens are not expected to emerge as major issues in the near future.

Japan's primary privacy legislation is the 1998 Act for the Protection of Computer Processed Personal Data. The Personal Data Protection Bill of 2003 may also have some applicability to RFID deployments. Overall, however, the perception of many in Japan is that privacy laws are discussed mostly in theory but have little impact on practices.

South Korea is unique in Asia in that it has a comprehensive privacy and data protection law.

A current bill aims to ensure that government at all levels can collect private data only with an individual's consent. The bill also specifies that reasons for the collection of personal information must be stated clearly on relevant documents and Web sites. Further, Korea's Ministry of Information and Communication intends to develop regulations targeted to mobile service providers, which have thus far avoided privacy laws for tracking users.

Malaysia has no obvious laws that address data privacy, nor does it adhere to international privacy agreements. The situation is similar in Indonesia, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

It is important to acknowledge that privacy continues to evolve, and is a dynamic and evolving concept across Asian countries.

In many ways, today's Asian governments and corporations have a low level of automation that hasn't been seen in the United States for more than 25 years. Throughout Asia, there is still an enormous installed base of paper records.

On the other hand, many Asian governments are rushing ahead and could soon surpass the United States in their adoption of information technology and so-called e-governance initiatives. For example, the Indian and Chinese governments are planning to create huge databases to provide smart electronic identity cards to all citizens. When they do, hundreds of millions, if not billions, of consumers will instantly be using RFID-based technology via smart cards on a daily basis.

A Cultural Predisposition to Technology Adoption?

Unlike the United States and its counterparts, most developing countries have not experienced decades of widespread technology adoption and thus lack a comparative "installed base" of technology adoption experience.

Rather, technology adoption has been associated with form, function and consumer status or "fashion"; more practically, technology is popularly associated with the application that it enables rather than the technology itself. As an example, many Asians adopted cell phones for status, form and function more rapidly than Americans have. Not only are cell phones "cool," they also provide the voice-to-voice communication that is so important to the cultures of many countries in the region. The status-conscious Asian has also begun to associate adoption of new technologies as a key status differentiator. The actual technology behind the phones is vastly secondary.

Countries are increasingly using specialized technology as a means to establish and leverage competitive national identities. A recent example is India's unprecedented leadership in outsourcing. This industry, now the talk of the international business world, was nonexistent in the region a few years ago. China has successfully taken a leadership role in low-cost manufacturing. The Philippines is also aggressively pursuing outsourcing, as are other countries.

It's fair to say that the need for identity-based personal privacy is not only a Western privilege but perhaps also a Western construct. Thus, the Asian adoption of RFID technologies will be conditional not on privacy issues but rather on practicality of the applications that RFID enables.

A Complex Interplay of Social Systems and Technology

In Asia, the following societal predispositions may assist the rapid adoption of RFID:

• General absence of governmental regulation of new types of technologies and industries.

• Lack of widespread technological automation.

• Cultures that don't necessarily view emerging technologies with suspicion.

• Lack of widespread public and governmental debate regarding adoption of new technologies.

• An abundance of non-democratic governments.

• The absence of a free press throughout the region.

Bimal Sareen is the founder and CEO of AVAANA, an RFID innovation and integration services company. He is also the president of the RFID Association of India.