Privacy Is Simple

By Kevin Ashton

Let's stop all the nonsensical arguing and take action.


Taking sensible action to protect consumer privacy is becoming ever more urgent as RFID moves closer to item-level tagging. But there is more nonsense said about this topic than any other in RFID—and it’s getting in the way of action.

Despite all the windy rhetoric, protecting privacy is actually very simple. What people want most is choice. The Auto-ID Center conducted extensive (and expensive) consumer research in five countries to understand people’s concerns about RFID and privacy. Their conclusion? The vast majority of people are not that bothered by RFID, providing they have a choice. The summary of all that work: “I don’t care, as long as I can turn it off.” (The research report is available for free at the Auto-ID Labs Web site—click on “Public Policy: Understanding Public Opinion.”)

As a result, the original Electronic Product Code privacy guidelines, passed by a vote of the center’s 103 corporate sponsors in 2003, are focused on choice. This is inconvenient for people at both extremes of the debate. Those who claim RFID is the end of the world as we know it would prefer to pretend they can speak—and choose—for billions of outraged people.

Those who think there’s no need to worry would rather do nothing than have to face the inconvenience of providing choice to the few people who may actually exercise it. This may be the reason this research (the only work of its kind, as far as I know) is never cited by extremists on either end of the spectrum. Why let the facts about what people actually think get in the way of a good argument?

We already know what to do to provide choice. Privacy concerns are not new, nor are they exclusive to RFID. They have been addressed many times before for other technologies, and general guidelines have been codified as a set of fair information practices. These give us all the guidance we need.

Choice requires information—it must be clear whether an item has been tagged and whether interrogators are being used in a public place. Choice requires a practical way for consumers to remove or kill a tag once they have bought an item. This could be an option at checkout, a self-service kiosk or cheap deactivator. Choice means consumers shouldn’t lose all rights if they kill their tags. And choice means knowing what personally identifiable data—if any—is being gathered, how it will be used, shared and retained, and how to opt out if you don’t want this data collected.

Offering choice is not free of cost or effort. But it does give people what they have said they want most, and based on the evidence, it will effectively address almost all sincere concerns about RFID and privacy. It assumes—rightly—that we are all independent, intelligent people capable of making our own decisions about things that affect us personally.

And this is yet another reason why offering choice is so important, so simple and so effective. If there’s one thing that’s even more offensive than Big Brother watching what we do, it’s Big Mother deciding what’s good for us. Everyone should be free to choose.

Kevin Ashton was cofounder and executive director of the Auto-ID Center. He is the author of a soon-to-be-published book about RFID. Illustration by Val Bochkov.