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Governments Must Address RFID Privacy Issues

Privacy advocates have legitimate concerns caused by the use of radio frequency identification technology in identity documents, recyclables, libraries and schools.
By Mark Roberti
Oct 01, 2010—Ever since the United States announced plans to put radio frequency identification transponders in passports, back in 2005, privacy advocates have been concerned about the use of RFID in identity documents. Recent news that schools are using RFID to monitor children and that more local governments are using it to track recyclables has brought the issue to the surface once again. Privacy supporters claim the technology will be abused, and consumer privacy will be the victim.

Governments have often failed to address the potential for the technology to be abused, or at least privacy advocates' concerns about potential abuses. In August, the Associated Press reported that California's Contra Costa County planned to have students wear RFID-tagged jerseys at school. The tags would be used to track children's movements and monitor whether they have eaten lunch each day. The goal is to reduce costs by eliminating the need for teachers to manually track each child's attendance and meals.

Photo: iStockphoto

News reports did not indicate whether the county planned to track students with short-range passive RFID technology or longer-range active RFID, nor did they say whether the tags would be secure. Some bloggers expressed fears that children could be tracked with RFID by pedophiles or estranged spouses.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit association that addresses issues related to free speech, privacy, innovation and consumer rights, expressed additional concerns: "An RFID chip allows for far more than that minimal [manual] record-keeping. Instead, it provides the potential for nearly constant monitoring of a child's physical location. If readings are taken often enough, you could create an extraordinarily detailed portrait of a child's school day—one that's easy to imagine being misused, particularly as the chips substitute for direct adult monitoring and judgment.

If RFID records show a child moving around a lot, could she be tagged as hyperactive? If he doesn't move around a lot, could he get a reputation for laziness? How long will this data and the conclusions rightly or wrongly drawn from it be stored in these children's school records? Can parents opt-out of this invasive tracking? How many other federal grants are underwriting programs like these?"

Also in August, the Cleveland City Council approved spending of $2.5 million on RFID-enabled trash carts for 25,000 households across the city. The city began testing RFID technology to track recyclables with 15,000 households in 2007. It plans to identify and fine ($100) each household that fails to recycle. Former U.S. Congressman Bob Barr said the plan represented "an unholy alliance between business and government in expanding the reach of Big Brother."
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