TCS Daily

Who's Afraid of RFID?

By James W. Harper - May 24, 2004 12:00 AM

Imagine a technology that promised to deliver diapers, baby food, and medicines to young parents less expensively. Every caring person should embrace it, but recent developments risk thwarting such a technology.

Radio frequency identification tags (RFID) are the successor to the Universal Product Code -- that row of lines that grocery scanners read. An RFID tag is a small silicon chip with a small antenna. The tag responds to the energy given off by an RFID-tag reader with a signal.

RFID tags do not require a line of sight to scan items, and they can identify each item individually, rather than generically. This means that goods in warehouses, in trucks, and on trains can be tracked more easily and more intelligently. Manufacturers can learn in near-real time when and where their goods have been sold. Pharmacists can make sure that expired drugs go into the trash, not into patients.

RFID will squeeze inefficiency out of the systems that deliver consumer goods, bringing us more of what we want and need, at lower prices, with higher quality and better safety.

Despite these benefits, opposition is mounting. Why? Ironically, some creators of RFID technologies are posing problems. They tout their capabilities so highly as to frighten thoughtful people. A good example is the gambling chip maker who claims that RFID will allow casino operators to track "the fortunes of every gambler on their premises, recording the stakes placed by each player along with their winnings and losses."

Not so. Any gambler knows that chips -- purchased with cash, no identification required -- move at random among players, to the house, and back again. No economically feasible RFID technology could identify each holder of chips, the size of bets, or the house's stake, all inches apart on a table.

In January, New Scientist uncritically reported these fantastical claims about RFID gambling chips, along with allegations that RFID would soon appear in paper money. This is good entertainment for Trekkies and Orwell fans, but it is not analysis of how RFID technology will actually be used.

But consumer groups and politicians have swallowed the hype, regurgitating it as a privacy threat. They ignore how low-income consumers will benefit from RFID in the form of lower prices. Instead, they seek after their own highly stylized conception of privacy, which nests closely with anything that thwarts commerce or marketing.

The RFID user community hasn't helped matters much either. EPCglobal is the industry consortium that manages the development of RFID technology for consumer goods. EPCglobal and its predecessor, the Auto-ID Center at MIT, have served as little more than doormats to the anti-commercial activists. They indulge vastly overstated concerns about RFID and privacy as if they were valid.

The upshot? Today, RFID deployment is bogged down in uncertainty. Legislators in the privacy-fear-of-the-moment club are introducing bills to limit its use. Supporters of RFID are reduced to fighting asinine claims that RFID is already in US$20 dollar bills. And technophobe activists are getting credence for views that are ill-considered, anti-progress, and ultimately anti-consumer.

RFID's deployment in the real world will be constrained dozens of ways.

Economics -- greed, if you prefer -- means that RFID on consumer goods will be designed to track goods very well, and humans not well at all. Secret micro-tags with long-distance read capability will show up in consumer products about when marketers are wasteful enough to use Formula One cars as delivery vehicles.

Consumerism means that people will ask for and get removable tags if privacy concerns outweigh the benefits of post-sale RFID, such as no-receipt returns. Consumer groups should work with actual consumers to discern their true interests.

Technological counter-measures like RFID-reader-detectors will turn up any surreptitious readers. RFID jamming and all variety of other techniques are in the works. To outré? Then think of scissors as an anti-RFID tech.

Law has many roles: Property rights mean that no one can place RFID readers in homes without consent. State tort law allows consumers to sue anyone who invades their privacy using RFID or any other device. Using RFID tags (somehow) in identity fraud, stalking, or any other crime is just as illegal.

These are examples from some of the categories of social forces that will control RFID and train it toward the most consumer-friendly uses, bringing the benefits of a promising technology to everyone.

Jim Harper is the Editor of privacy policy Web-tank


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