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Addressing Fears About RFID

The industry and end users need to be proactive to alleviate consumer concerns that RFID tags can be hidden in clothing and other products.
By Mark Roberti
Oct 01, 2008—On March 12, 2003, Philips Semiconductors (now NXP) announced it would ship 15 million high-frequency radio frequency identification tags for use by Benetton in its Sisley line of clothes. Within days, a previously obscure organization called Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering (CASPIAN) was calling for a boycott of Benetton and telling every journalist who would listen that RFID tags in clothes would be used by marketers to spy on their customers.

More than five years later, the dynamics of the debate over RFID and privacy have changed little, even though manufacturers and retailers have taken steps to address concerns. Most apparel manufacturers have opted to tag clothing by placing the RFID transponder in a hangtag or on packaging that's removed by the customer after the purchase, rather than embedding the tag in the item. And retailers have not associated RFID serial numbers with individual customers, to avoid any appearance that the tag could be used to track customers.

Yet Katherine Albrecht, founder of CASPIAN, continues to get significant press coverage with claims that marketers and the government will use RFID to spy on unsuspecting individuals. Even Scientific American, a magazine that has published articles by more than 120 Nobel laureates, recently ran a six-page story by Albrecht titled "How RFID Tags Could Be Used to Track Unsuspecting People." In the article she writes:

"During the past decade a shift toward embedding chips in individual consumer goods and, now, official identity documents has created a new set of privacy and security problems precisely because RFID is such a powerful tracking technology. Very little security is built into the tags themselves, and existing laws offer people scant protection from being surreptitiously tracked and profiled while living an increasingly tagged life."

There hasn't been a shift toward embedding RFID tags in individual consumer goods, but there has been a move toward embedding RFID in identity documents, most notably passports. That, coupled with false claims about tags being embedded in clothes, has enabled her to keep the fear alive that people will be tracked without their knowledge through RFID transponders they carry. Although many countries are taking steps to prevent "skimming"—surreptitiously reading data stored in an RFID tag without a person's knowledge—the media continues to give Albrecht a soapbox because she generates anxiety, and anxiety gets people to read magazines and blogs or watch television news ("Could your child be killed by eating Cheerios? Find out by tuning in to the Late News at 11").

The anxiety stems from the claim that companies or government agencies could track you without your knowledge, and that claim has persisted for five years because on a superficial level it's believable. You can't see radio waves, so people don't know when a tag they might be carrying is being read. They don't know when they're being tracked, what the data might be used for, or how to stop it.
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