Report Tempers RFID Fears

Published October 1, 2007

Radio frequency identification (RFID) technology has gained widespread use, and attempts to regulate or ban such devices are premature, says a new report from the Pacific Research Institute.

RFID tags track inventory for retail businesses and the military. Future benefits of RFID, writes K. Lloyd Billingsley, author of the July report Playing Tag: An RFID Primer, will extend to medicine, agriculture, and security. An RFID tag can act as the modern equivalent of a medical bracelet for patients, monitor the body temperature of animals to alert farmers of disease, or detect fraudulent passports.

Privacy activists and politicians concerned about potential abuses are developing guidelines and legislation for RFID. New Hampshire, for example, was among 18 states introducing legislation this year aimed at curtailing RFID use. (See “New Hamp. Legislators Address RFID Concerns, IT&T News, May 2007.)

The New Hampshire bill, SB 686, was referred to committee. In 2006, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) vetoed a bill that would have placed a moratorium on all RFID development in the state.

Adopting Privacy Measures

Those who understand the benefits of RFID are aware of its potential for abuse, Billingsley writes. Most seek to require retailers to deactivate tags at the time of purchase. They are also urging manufacturers to embed tags in the packaging instead of in the products themselves.

The RFID industry and users have endorsed both approaches.

The novelty of the technology and its use by both the U.S. military and large retailers such as Wal-Mart have stoked fears RFID can be used to track people’s movements and invade privacy, notes Billingsley.

Balancing Benefits, Costs

The benefits of RFID–lower costs, faster delivery, identification of counterfeit products, and greater security of personal documents such as passports and drivers licenses–are often overlooked, Billingsley says, while fears are overblown.

For example, Billingsley writes, video surveillance is far more effective in tracking individuals than RFID, which essentially is blind.

“It is a stretch to say that RFID tags can track ‘your every move.’ A scanner cannot tell whether a product bearing a tag is being used by the purchaser of the product, has been given to someone else, or lies in the trash,” writes Billingsley. “Nor is concealability a badge of malevolence.

“For all the alarm, there is a dearth of cases in which people have proved, or even claimed, that they personally have been harmed by RFID. Since any technology can be misused, the focus should be on the human element,” Billingsley continued.

Billingsley suggests lapses in routine security, such as a failure to secure laptops, lead to greater risks. RFID, he says, which can track laptops and other such equipment, can actually reduce the risk of a security or privacy breach in the event the equipment is lost or stolen.

Steven Titch ([email protected]) is senior fellow for IT and telecom policy at The Heartland Institute and managing editor of IT&T News.

For more information …

K. Lloyd Billingsley, Playing Tag: An RFID Primer, Pacific Research Institute, July 2007: