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How to Create an RFID Privacy Plan

Kill the tag. Zero it out. Encrypt the data. There are many ways to protect consumer privacy. But at this early stage, how do you do it in a way that reassures customers and doesn't limit the benefits of RFID?
By Bob Violino
Tags: Retail
May 25, 2003—May 26, 2003 - There are some technologies that consumers have an almost instinctive negative reaction to. Genetically engineered food may be sound science and good policy if done right, but most people feel that there's great potential for scary unintended consequences. RFID may not provoke quite as strong a reaction as "Frankenfood," but the concept of putting tracking devices in products does raise privacy concerns among many consumers.
An RFID focus group (Photo courtesy of the Auto-ID Center)

If you're developing plans for an RFID pilot or initial deployment, consumer privacy is hardly your most pressing concern. You're probably struggling with standards, frequencies, RF interference, data management and many other practical considerations. And you may not have any plans to track consumer items for several years.

Nevertheless, if you make, move or sell consumer items, it's wise to begin formulating a privacy policy now. There are two reasons. First, you need to have good answers when a journalist calls asking not how you plan to use RFID but how you could use RFID. And second, privacy issues may be one factor in determining which hardware you choose. For instance, Benetton chose to use ISO-compliant technology, which does not feature a "kill switch." So Benetton could not inform the press that the tags would be permanently deactivated at checkout. On the other hand, you may not want or need a kill switch.

It's also important to understand that perception is reality. You may be running a supply chain pilot and have no plans to track customer purchases. But that's not the issue. The issue is how your plans are interpreted or portrayed in the press. Unless you have a convincing story to tell journalists, the media and consumers are likely to assume the worst about your companies' intentions.

The Auto-ID Center hired a consumer research firm to test the reaction of consumers around the world to the idea of tracking items with EPC tags. The center found, in almost all places, that consumer attitudes were neutral to negative toward RFID, and that opinion makers, including journalists, were not likely to embrace the technology. The center's report says that consumers and journalists in the US "are unlikely to believe that the network will not be abused and will look for regulations and controls for reassurance."

You can tell people that the tags have a very limited read range, but don't expect them to believe it. When one person in the Center's focus group in Japan was told that the tags could be read from only a few feet away, he responded: "In the future, the technology will develop; it will leave you naked." And one person in the UK said: "I can guarantee that they will be able to read through steel."

So how do you come up with a policy that will convince people (who may not want to be convinced) that your company will respect their privacy. You need an approach that includes technological safeguards, procedural safeguards and policy safeguards. The main focus of this article is on the technology, because that's the only area unique to RFID. But we'll also touch on the procedural and policy issues toward the end of the article.
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