Opinion: The RFID tag privacy threat is overstated

It would be plain stupid to assume that RFID will definitely be used to surreptitiously collect information on people

RFID could be used to infringe personal privacy. The point made by Privacy Commissioner Marie Shroff (Computerworld, 3 September) is a very good one — although, it applies to virtually any technology in mass use today.

It takes little imagination to see that digital cameras, some the size of a pencil, cellphones (now carried by nearly everyone) and the millions of EFTPOS transactions made each day can be used with varying levels of sophistication to snoop on people. There are examples everywhere you look and, yes, RFID does extend the possibility of privacy infringement. No argument.

But it would be wise not to over-state the capabilities of the technology or the reality of risk to individuals. And it would be plain stupid to assume that RFID will definitely be used to surreptitiously collect information on people or to ignore all its benefits — benefits to consumers and to society at large, as well as industry.

Let’s be clear: there are potential privacy issues around the development of item-level RFID tagging on consumer goods. You buy a jacket, a laptop computer or new parts for your car, and each of these will come with tags attached or embedded — tags with microchips and small radio antennae that send unique identifying numbers to electronic readers, linked in turn to computer databases with detailed background information on those items. RFID tags using the EPC (electric product code) standard are designed to be read at key points in the supply chain, including retail sale. Thereafter, the tags may remain active on or in your possessions. The conceivable risk is of various purchases being cross referenced and perhaps linked to other personal data. Your spending could be tracked and your consumer personality profiled. This sounds very “big brother”, but consider four key points.

First, RFID is basically about storing and collecting information on products, not people. There is nothing inherent in the technology that means it will be used for surveillance or consumer profiling. That would require the addition of other technology, plus intentional manipulation of systems and information.

Second, the readability of tags is usually very limited. There are active and passive tags. EPC, as the standard for item-level tagging, mainly uses the latter — and these tags can only be read within two or three metres. In the United States, RFID tags on new passports can be read from only a few centimetres (they have electromagnetic shielding to prevent more remote, illegal reading). On the other hand, traffic toll passes (in Sydney, Hong Kong and Brisbane, for example) use active tags readable over hundreds of metres — no-one is suggesting this for item-level tagging.

Third, RFID microchips can be very small but the smaller and “more hidden” they are, the less their utility. Some chips are the size of a grain of salt, but they need a much bigger antennae to function. The idea that many everyday items can be tagged without consumers knowing does not stack up (although bigger items, like cars, certainly can be).

Fourth, tags can be placed for easy removal and deactivation once an item is sold at retail. To continue with RFID thereafter becomes a matter of consumer choice. Some argue that removal of tags at point of sale should be mandatory, but there may be definite benefits to the consumer in leaving tags active in, for example, car parts, electronic goods or pharmaceuticals.

Clearly, privacy safeguards can be built into the design and use of any RFID system. The size, location and accessibility of tags and electronic readers can allay fears about the technology being abused. What’s more, EPC/RFID is proceeding on the basis of industry guidelines that bind retailers and others to policies and practices for respecting privacy (see New Zealand guidelines of www.gs1nz.org). The guidelines promote education for consumers on the nature and extent of RFID, including their choice to remove tags on purchased items.

All parties would lose out in any rush to regulate RFID on privacy grounds without careful analysis of the real issues. The benefits are potentially huge, with more efficient and lower cost supply chains, and greater convenience and choice for consumers. Other society-wide benefits now include, for example, the reduction of eWaste: The EPCglobal organisation has recently received US government funding to investigate using RFID tags to track and recycle electronic hardware.

Hartley is general manager of sector development for GS1 New Zealand, formerly EAN New Zealand.

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