Public Trust of RFID

As RFID becomes more prevalent in society, how can the government reduce the public's uncertainties about this mystifying technology?

by / November 14, 2007

In October, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a law banning the forced implantation of radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags in humans by an employer.

RFID tags are basically a microchip attached to an antenna which transmits information with radio waves. A scanner picks up these radio signals and sends the information to a computer system, thus identifying the item the chip is attached to. RFIDs are used today to track inventory, in library books, passports, automatic toll bridge systems and even credit cards.

But for most, this technology is vague and formless. People do not realize they are using RFID every day in their car's keyless entry or company ID badges.

According to the study "RFID Reports: 'Public Policy: Understanding Public Opinion,'" by Auto-ID Labs, University of Cambridge, U.K., the main concern of people "is that they do not have a choice as to when or where the technology is used or as to how it will impact them." They are also concerned that the technology will be abused, creating a negative affect on their privacy.

This subject was expounded upon at the International Association of Privacy Professionals (IAPP) Academy in San Francisco. Experts Daniel Pradelles, Privacy Officer for Hewlett Packard, and Sandra R. Hughes, Global Privacy Executive for Proctor & Gamble, explained the various privacy issues surrounding RFID, and what can be done to protect privacy while taking advantage of a new technology.

State Senator Joe Simitian -- sponsor of the California bill banning forced RFID implantation in humans -- admits that RFID is not necessarily a bad thing. "RFID technology is not in and of itself the issue. RFID is a minor miracle, with all sorts of good uses," said Simitian. "But we cannot and should not condone forced 'tagging' of humans. It's the ultimate invasion of privacy."  

What the public needs is education said Pradelles. "Education of all. When I say of all, this is not only education of the consumer ... we need education of all people using RFID chips and RFID information." The public needs to understand the various types, techniques, ranges, frequencies and applications of RFID. Does this tag transmit constantly or is it inactive? How can I know? What is the range of this tag?

With RFID's potential to be invisible, people wonder when and what data is being collected, where it is going and who has access to their information. RFID also worries the public because of its ability for 24 hour surveillance, unknown gathering and improper use of data, monitoring and ID theft. The Auto-ID Labs study revealed that the public's "second concern is that they believe that the [RFID] system will be abused and that this will have a negative effect on them, especially in regards to their privacy."

One way that may help to both inform the public and educate them is through the creation of a universal symbol for RFID tags, explained Sandra Hughes. This symbol would be much like the copyright symbol -- universally recognized and understood. "There is a project proposal from the Center for Information Policy Leadership ... to come up with some requirements and specifications if we would have a universal symbol that would go across all industries across the globe," Hughes said. When an RFID tag is used in a department store to control merchandise, for example, the universal symbol would be posted on the door or as part of the receipt, or on the product, letting the customer know that tags are in use.

The use of such a universal symbol would increase transparency in RFID operations, enabling the public to be more aware of its applications and giving them the resources necessary to learn more about tagging. "The idea

is just like with the kosher symbol ... there would be something that when you see it, you know that that's what it means," Hughes added.

It is thought by experts in the field that the trend in RFID is moving toward item level tagging -- placing tags on individual items such as cans of soup or bars of soap or even government documents. This type of tagging could help when items need to be recalled, or in the tracking of specific inventory or documents. The only industry which uses this system right now is the apparel industry, using a closed loop system (tag items when they reach the store and remove tags when they are sold). But according Hughes, the move to wide spread individual item tagging is at least five years away.

If the government would like to allay the fears of people regarding their privacy and RFID, a law requiring the disclosure of RFID use regulations should be written. Such regulations should be technology neutral, generic and flexible to be able to keep up with changing technologies, Pradelles explained. The establishment of a universal RFID symbol will increase transparency and add to this widespread education of RFID uses and regulations. Perhaps with actions such as these this new technology could be better integrated into society, and more people would be willing to jump on the RFID bandwagon, with their privacy securely stowed away.

Gina M. Scott Writer