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Privacy: A Western Construct

Asia's cultural, political and economic diversity makes it unlikely that RFID privacy issues will emerge here as they have in the West.
By Bimal Sareen
Jun 01, 2005—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.
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