Does RFID Infringe on Privacy?

By RFID Journal

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Ask The ExpertsDoes RFID Infringe on Privacy?
RFID Journal Staff asked 11 years ago
What are the chief privacy concerns associated with radio frequency identification?

—Name withheld

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That depends on whether you are asking an informed or uniformed person. Some uniformed people have raised the possibility of tags being used to track individuals from satellites (which is impossible), or having your personal identifiable information broadcast to all and sundry (usually not the case), or having stores track you through tags hidden in your shoes, for instance, (which is possible, but it would be a highly stupid business tactic). So I am not concerned about these things, and I don’t think anyone who is knowledgeable about RFID is, either.

I’ve written extensively on the privacy issue. Since a search of our Web site will turn up all of my past columns, I won’t rehash them all here. Instead, I’ll focus on the privacy concerns I do have.

My biggest concern is that some corporation will be stupid enough to spy on its customers using RFID. They won’t do the shoe thing, but they might try to find a way to gather information on individual customers in order to store data on their buying habits. If a consumer opts in, then it’s no problem—but it would be a huge black eye for the RFID industry if a major retailer were to be discovered to have tracked people without their knowledge. Given how sensitive companies are to losing customers, I doubt the threat is very large.

The only real privacy concern I see is that as RFID becomes more commonly used in things consumers buy or use, unscrupulous parties will find ways to use the technology to rip people off. It’s not difficult to imagine organized crime figuring out ways to use RFID devices to make charges attributed to other folks. Banks and other users of RFID for transactions would respond, the criminals would find ways to crack the security, the users would respond again, and so forth.

There is also the potential that some people could use the technology to track others without there knowledge. RFID is a short-range technology, so that provides some safety—but it might be possible, for instance, to place a tag in a woman’s pocketbook, and to then use that tag to track when she visits certain places.

I believe these threats are real, but they can easily be addressed. The problem is that most legislatures have been proposing laws that punish technology users, rather than abusers. If we focus on outlawing bad behavior and not technology—which is neither good nor bad—then the problems can be kept to a minimum.

—Mark Roberti, Editor, RFID Journal

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