In the wrong hands, RFID could invade privacy

RFID technology could become so powerful and omnipresent that it violates personal and corporate privacy.
That’s a fear many futurists have about the new technology.
Declan McCullagh, a political correspondent and columnist for CNET, Washington, D.C., said retailers are interested in utilizing passive RFID tags with individual items to more easily track theft and identify quality issues.
According to McCullagh, when both the retailer and the distributor can confirm the arrival of the items and prevent accidental loss from human error or theft, the end result will be lower prices for consumers.
However, that’s where another aspect of the technology could become troublesome, McCulllagh said.
"The real privacy issue is when the customer leaves the checkout," McCullagh said. "When a customer is carrying a purchase down the street, anyone with a reader can tell what is inside the person’s shopping bag. I can imagine a nightmare scenario where a thief has a transmitter that can read RFID tags inside of a house."
William DeKruif, executive vice president of RFTechnologies, Brookfield, like most producers of RFID, disagrees. According to DeKruif, RFID will never be pervasive, because tags are made to read specific information.
"The specialized technology industry takes privacy concerns seriously. There is a lot of education that still needs to take place, but the misuse or overuse of information is not going to get ahead of technology and security," DeKruif said. "People are jumping to unrealistic conclusions about RFID. RFID can be likened to the introduction of cell phones, ATM cards and credit cards. These products were developed for convenience, and the risks in reality were never what had been imagined."
Steps are being taken through legislation and product development to ensure consumer privacy.
In February, California State Sen. Debra Brown proposed a bill seeking to govern the use of RFID. According to CNET, if passed, Senate Bill 1834 will require businesses and agencies using RFID technology to inform customers of its use and to receive expressed consent from the customer to track and collect information about them through RFID.
The bill also will require businesses using RFID to destroy the frequency connection on purchased products before customers leave the store.
Another form of privacy protection reflects the concept of security on the Internet. A Massachusetts-based company already specializing in Internet privacy and security has developed a blocking system for RFID tags.
RSA Security announced in February it is developing a Blocker Tag designed to prevent outside readers from scanning electronic codes from products through anti-radio frequency technology.
"In a naive, RFID-enabled world without technical forethought, there is risk that sensitive information could be visible in secret to anyone with an RFID reader," Burt Kaliski, director and chief scientist of RSA Laboratories said. "Moreover, the unique serial numbers emitted by RFID tags could be used to track people and objects surreptitiously. For businesses too, RFID introduces new privacy and security risks – and a whole new dimension to corporate espionage. These concerns have motivated our scientists to work on a new generation of technical solutions that match these challenges."

April 2, 2004 Small Business Times, Milwaukee

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