RFID: Boon or Bane? Debate Rages on

The tiny silicon devices called radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, capable of tracking just about anything or anyone, are wildly popular in tech circles these days. But RFID has also opened a Pandora’s Box with experts questioning whether its utility outweighs concerns over privacy.

Software giant Microsoft believes that RFID can eventually be used to keep track of the location and status of many items normally found in American homes. Another company, VeriChip Corp., hopes to make it possible one day for an individual’s medical records to be stored on a chip that can be embedded inside the body, giving medics instant access to potentially life-saving information. Some people have even suggested that it will prove helpful in thwarting kidnappings or locating lost children.

So far, so good; but critics are criticizing the RFID on the grounds that it can be misused and violate a person’s right to privacy. Potentially, RFID may allow unscrupulous individuals to wirelessly “read” the contents of a household’s room or track an individual’s location without obtaining his or her consent.

For the time being, the use of RFID tags will be limited to some government agencies and a few large retailers that use the technology to keep track of products in their supply chain.

According to Christine Overby, analyst with Forrester Research, there are less expensive technologies available than RFID to improve people’s personal lives. “All of these [technologies] are more near-term than having a refrigerator or closet full of RFID tagged products,” Overby said.

Overby added that talking about privacy keeps open an important dialogue in which the RFID industry needs to participate, commenting “Most consumers are currently OK about RFID, provided that companies using the technology create a code of conduct governing their use that respects consumer privacy.”

A study by Forrester Research found that 21 percent of the U.S. consumers who know about RFID fear the prospect of companies tracking their purchases. Still, according to the same survey, 81 percent of the concerned shoppers are willing to accept the idea of retailers disabling the tag once the item leaves the store.

Despite people’s concerns over privacy, Overby sees little danger of any RFID-driven Big Brother scenarios unfolding in the U.S. retail industry any time soon.

However, the chipping of Americans is not too far away, as RFID tags are likely to play a key role in securing the next generation of U.S. identity documents, according to Bob McCullough, an analyst at The Yankee Group. Currently, the U.S. Department of State is testing a new type of electronic passport that will use an RFID chip to record a person’s information: name, birthday, gender, place of birth, dates of passport issuance and expiration, passport number, and even a photo image of the bearer. Moreover, to protect the stored data from being altered, the same chip is also expected to host a digital signature.

According to Overby, if America becomes the first country to tag its citizens electronically, then the mere detection of an RFID signal would denote the presence of an American and that is the information terrorists might try to exploit.

To lessen the risk of such a scenario, the State Department is considering technology that could prevent the embedded chip from being accessed unless the passport is opened.


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