RFID’s long road ahead

With a variety of international retailers pushing for its adoption, radio frequency identification (RFID) technology has been in the news a great deal recently, while at the same time unintentionally pushing itself to the forefront of an ongoing debate around its ability to invade personal privacy if used incorrectly or unethically.

The world’s largest retailer, Wal-Mart Stores Inc., has set a deadline of January 2005 for its 100 largest suppliers to place RFID tags on pallets being shipped to three pilot distribution centres in Texas. But even the giant retailer, well known for its market clout and the pressure it puts on suppliers, has left room for slow compliance.

There is pressure to move the suppliers to RFID technology “but also an understanding that we’re not trying to hurt ’em either,” said H. Lee Scott, president and CEO of the Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer, during a keynote address at the recent National Retail Federation annual conference. “If they just can’t do it, I mean, it’s not like we’re going to quit doing business with them.” Scott said that his view of the time frame is that it’s realistic, “but if it isn’t, we’ll back off.”

The hype around RFID tagging is that it is it takes the traditional bar code to the next level. “This is like bar codes on steroids,” said Steve Hall, vice-president of sales and marketing for Durham, N.C.-based SAMsys Technologies Inc., a maker of RFID readers. With traditional bar code systems, the reader has to physically see the bar code, and can read only one at a time. RFID tags, a microchip attached to an antenna placed on an inlay, can be read by antenna placed at a loading dock door. The antenna passes the information to an RFID reader which in turn passes the data to supply chain management software. In a matter of seconds thousands of items can be scanned and entered into an inventory system.

Today’s RFID tags are about the size of a deck of cards, Halls said, thus limiting their placement. And although some security pass cards use RFID technology, and are smaller, their power is limited thus requiring the card to be placed within inches of the reader. Hall said an RFID tag small enough to be placed on individual items, and cost effective enough to be used on all items, is still a few years away. But the drive for individually tagged items is certainly there, especially from retailers.

“Smart shelves,” with RFID readers attached to them could give up-to-date inventory on exactly how many items are on a shelf. Even the most integrated bar code systems can only say an item is in the store, not where it is.

But it is this future with everything tagged and readers everywhere that has privacy experts concerned.

Peter Hope-Tindall is not a naysayer. “I tend to agree that the privacy concerns have been overstated,” said the chief privacy architect at Mississauga, Ont.-based dataPrivacy Partners Ltd. “There are all kinds of good stuff it can do.” This includes everything from more streamlined product recall to faster checkouts at the grocery store, he said. Because every item can potentially have an RFID tag, something Hope-Tindall said will “absolutely” happen, companies can track inventory at granular levels previously only dreamed of. But “unfortunately that same level of granularity is the problem,” he said.

Those who are against RFID tags talk about people being secretly scanned and having all of their personal possessions itemized when they enter a store — a world where customer service is truly a reflection of what you are wearing. “In my opinion no retailer would ever do so,” said Terry McQuay, president of Toronto-based privacy consultants Nymity. In any case, today’s tags are in the “several dollar” range, Hall said — far from the cents range needed to tag individual items.

Though Hope-Tindall agrees companies will probably not invade privacy to the point of scanning customers, “there needs to be an abundance of disclosure.”

The RFID Bill of Rights (see sidebar) is a good starting point, he said. As it stands there are no laws specific to RFID and privacy, though there is some sense current Canadian privacy laws could be applicable. Hope-Tindall said the potential for abuse should not be underestimated. The Ontario Ministry of Transportation placed RFID readers on Highway 409 with the intention of calculating traffic flow using data from cars with RFID tags designed for travel on the electronically tolled, privately owned Highway 407. Those drivers would have been unaware their movements were being monitored on the 409 had the Ministry gone ahead with its plans. A Ministry spokesperson said the “readers were never used” and that there are “no plans at this time to use them.”

Another, lesser concern is security but since the RFID signal is proprietary, Hall explained, it would be difficult for a company to read someone else’s tags. When Highway 407 was bought from the government the new owners changed the RFID tags placed in cars. The readers on Highway 409 can not read the new tags. If it is deemed necessary RFID tags can be encrypted.

– With files from IDG News Service

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RFID Bill of Rights:

  1. The right to know whether products contain RFID tags.
  2. The right to have RFID tags removed or deactivated when they purchase products.
  3. The right to use RFID-enabled services without RFID tags.
  4. The right to access an RFID tag’s stored data.
  5. The right to know when, where and why the tags are being read.

Source Simson Garfinkel – MIT Technology Review – October 2002

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