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RFIDs, the Darker Side

Although the potential boon to retailers and industry is great, there are some potential downsides for the consumer. Although it might be desirable to lessen the effort for daily transactions (such as grocery or clothing purposes), there are some privacy issues that have not really been addressed by the RFID industry.

That does not mean that privacy is not a concern for the industry, it certainly is. But as with most consumer-oriented technologies that mix purchasing data and personal information, there are still some unanswered questions that should always be on the mind of consumers as developers continue to implement RFIDs.

Identity Issues

One of the most important identity issues concerns consumer identity. Just as your identity is linked to a credit card, your identity is linked to a SmartCard containing RFIDs. The difference is that your credit card uses a magnetic technology that requires you to hand your card over to the clerk to be swiped. It is a fine point of distinction, but an important one.

When you use a credit card for a transaction, both the retailer and the credit card company have a unique way of identifying you with your purchases, which allows them to generate a very vivid profile of your buying habits and your lifestyle. However, you're also consenting to give them that information. It's part of your agreement with the credit card company when you sign up for the card. And you control when and who you give that information to through your choice to use the credit card to pay for your purchases.

With RFID technology, that choice isn't as clear. There are many RFID scanners that can read any number of different RFIDs. And you don't have to do anything to "give up" your information, other than pass within their range. A scanner set up at the doorway to a shop could scan you when you entered—without your consent and without you taking any action to provide the card to the merchant.

There are some mechanisms that are being considered to stop this kind of invasive information-gathering. One way is to have the ID encrypted and linked to you—like a public key, but without giving up any explicit information. To get actual personal information, the merchant would be required to negotiate for that information from the owner of the database with your account info (that is, the credit card company). That would certainly allow RFIDs to obtain near-parity with credit cards. Although,there is still the issue of knowledge—you still might not know that the information was being gathered.

Additionally, most credit card companies already keep detailed information about your purchasing habits and sell that information to retailers to target you for goods and services. The amount of money you spend each month, as well as details about what you spend it on, is very valuable to businesses that want you to buy more from them. It's a tradeoff for the consumer. You give up some of your privacy to get better deals and coupons for things you wanted to buy, anyway. But now detailed information about your lifestyle can be obtained by anyone who wants to purchase it. Some would argue that this is the price of convenience, whereas others would argue that it's a Faustian bargain. Either way, it's definitely something to ponder when it comes to RFIDs.

Security Concerns

Going hand-in-hand with privacy concerns are security concerns. As more detailed profiles are kept on you and your habits, the person with access to that information gains more insight into your life. And with that insight comes the potential for bad things. It makes identity theft easier. It makes governmental abuses of power easier. It makes it easier for you to be interrupted at dinner by phone calls from solicitors.

There are always debates about the security of the databases that credit card companies, banks, and credit bureaus keep about individuals. These debates won't go away with RFIDs; they'll just get more heated because RFIDs allow even more details about your purchases and habits to be gathered.

If all this sounds a bit "Big Brother" and Orwellian, it's not without reason. Consider that RFIDs are being proposed for currency in some countries, which would allow law enforcement agencies to track cash transactions. RFID technologies in automobiles could be used to track movements (Michelin has tested RFID technology embedded in tires).

Imagine a world in which your tires were recorded at certain spots in the road, and then a speeding ticket was mailed to you automatically by cross-checking the tire's RFID to the VIN for your car in a database. It sounds like overkill, but it is entirely possible given the technology.

Another recent example involves an elementary school in which students were given RFID-based ID cards. The cards were used to track students in the classroom and restrooms, and teachers were given scanners to use to scan student IDs as well. After concerned parents contacted the school in protest, most of the scanners were deactivated, and the students were given the option of opting out of the program. Continued pressure from parents and the ACLU led the company that was conducting the test to withdraw from the school.

The merits of IDs for students (such as attendance and safety) aside, the school example shows just how powerful and easy it can be to implement systems using RFIDs for identification, to track movement throughout a building, or for any number of other uses.

Unable to Remove

Many of these concerns stem from the fact that RFIDs are embedded, hard to find, and difficult to remove. Especially as the technology gets smaller and smaller, it could be virtually impossible for you to know that an RFID tag were installed in that sweater you just purchased. And because most RFID tags are not powered, there's an indefinite lifespan on the tag.

You could be walking around with a purse or briefcase full of RFID tags for years. All the while, these tags would be broadcasting information about the contents of your bags every time you passed a scanner.

There are some ways to circumvent this privacy invasion, however. Because they are Radio Frequency devices, you can destroy an RFID with a few seconds in a microwave. Not the most elegant solution, but it does the trick.

There are also "blocker" tags, which can be employed to essentially scramble the signal for the RFID scanners. These blocker tags work by sending out their own RFID signals on all the commonly used frequencies, essentially jamming the reader's ability to read any other RFID tags in the proximity of the blocker tag.

Technologies such as blocker tags and disabling the RFID tags in items on your person may be a few ways to combat potential privacy invasions that may arise with RFIDs. But like any new technology, there will always be a need for some give-and-take between legitimate uses that benefit consumers and potential abuses.

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