August 23, 2003
Protests Over RFID Just Silly
Why is it that folks are protesting the use of RFID technology by companies like Wal-Mart, Procter & Gamble, and others?
In case you haven't heard of RFID, it stands for Radio Frequency ID. The technology behind RFID is still being tweaked, but the idea is pretty straightforward. RFID tags are simple circuits that have some small amount of information (a few kb at most) embedded in them. These small tags "identify" themselves and broadcast their information when they pass within a few yards or feet of special radio-frequency sensors. The tags are inert until they receive power from the reader's wavefield. These RFID tags could be placed on things (e.g., pallets of shampoo or individual bags of dog food) so that products can be tracked throughout the supply chain and more accurate information can be had about inventory levels, locations of products in stores and warehouses, etc. Additionally, they could possibly be used in metro or rail passes, hotel door keys, etc. -- wherever a unique identifier is needed.
According to stories like "Privacy advocates call for RFID regulation" (CNET News.com), there is an organized and growing opposition to the further development and deployment of this technology (which is already in use by the US military). The opposition claims that RFID offers the significant potential for companies to invade our personal privacy more easily and extensively than they already do.
Even though I fully agree that privacy is something we need to protect, the RFID technology does not pose a more serious threat than anything else out there today for a few reasons.
First, getting a chip to broadcast its coded information requires a sensor. Installing these sensors everywhere is both expensive and troublesome. While a supermarket or department store might be able to recoup this expense, most businesses would not. A restaurant, for example, would be unlikely to be able to tag much of its products because they're eaten on-site. Moreover, the restaurant isn't going to have much interest in RFID tags a patron may already have on his/her person when he/she walks in, so what would be its financial return for installing these sensors?
Second, these sensors don't contain any information about you, just the products you purchase. They don't contain your social security number, your age, your address, or your credit card number. A large number of US shoppers have willingly signed up for discount cards at their neighborhood grocery stores. These cards effectively generate the same information that the RFID system would -- what you buy, when, and where. Obviously, a large number (perhaps a majority?) of US shoppers are willing to trade some privacy for cheaper groceries. While it's true that some tags can be re-written wirelessly (perhaps even using PDA or handheld computers), it's unlikely that tags on standard consumer items like toothpaste would have this capability.
Finally, RFID represents a potentially huge improvement in our ability to reduce prices and improve availability of the goods in our stores. By having better information about when and where products are at any given time, supply chain managers can make better decisions about purchasing, stock levels, renewal policies, etc., etc. Personally, if RFID helps the grocery store improve the likelihood that it has the products I want when I want them on its shelves, then I'm all for giving them some additional information.
Maybe it's just that I don't have anything to hide. Maybe I don't really care that anybody knows what I buy. Or maybe I'm just not paranoid enough for my own good. What do you think?Posted by Craig | Permalink