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The New York Times on RFID tags

The New York Times has an article today on the pros and cons of Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) being attached to products in supply chains and in stores. A couple of highlights.


Tags with the technology known as radio frequency identification, or R.F.I.D., transmit a digital response when contacted by radio signals from scanning devices. Older versions of the technology have been around for decades, but now major manufacturers and retailers and the Defense Department are pushing to speed the development of a new version that could be read by scanners anywhere in the world, making it cheaper and more efficient to track the flow of goods from global suppliers to consumers.

The Defense Department expects to issue a statement in the next few days calling on suppliers to adopt the new version of the technology by 2005. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. made a similar announcement in July when it said it was requiring its top 100 suppliers to place tags with the new technology on cartons and pallets shipped to its stores by the end of 2004.

The Department of Defence. A government mandate for doing business with that part of the government. One doesn’t have to be cynical, here. There are obvious reasons why the DoD needs and wants this technology that have nothing to do with taking away people’s privacy. (It simply allows them to run their logistics better, and potentially to keep track of what is going on on a battlefield). However, these are not the sorts of people I expect to want to put protections in place that safeguard my privacy, either.


Ms. Albrecht and other critics say that companies and government agencies will be able to monitor what people read or where they assemble from radio tags embedded in their books or woven into clothing. Unlike bar codes, which cannot be scanned unless a laser has a direct line of sight to them, the radio tags can be read through walls, and multiple tags can be read in an instant.

“R.F.I.D. certainly has value in the supply chain and in inventory management,” said Beth Given, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse in San Diego. But she added that “there are so many potential issues once it gets beyond the point of sale that consumer protections need to be written into law.”

And thus we once again hit the usual quandry. There are potential benefits, very real ones, in adopting these sorts of technologies. And yet the privacy and surveillance implications are such that if we adopt them we give up a lot of privacy and hand the information to governments and large organisations almost automatically. Once again, what needs to be said is that it is possible to design such technologies so that the benefits are there and the privacy violations are not, or at least so that the privacy violations are transparent and we are informed when they are happening. But to build such safeguards in, these issues have to be discussed at the very beginning, by which I mean right now. And on the whole it isn’t happening. Do I actually expect to see such safeguards put in place. Well, to tell the truth, no.

(Link via slashdot).

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2 comments to The New York Times on RFID tags

  • Rob

    One possible (or perhaps the only) defence against RFID is the ability to scan for the tags yourself. Hopefully we will start to see consumer RFID scanning equipment as the technology becomes more prevailant. At least then we’ll be able to check that the tags have _really_ been deactivated upon leaving the store. You could go around your house removing the tags from products.

    I suggested this to a colleague and he came up with an interesting use for the removed RFID tags. Epoxy a few dozen of them into a lump and chuck them into a shop. Instant RFID terrorism!

  • Perhaps it might also be possible to carry a device of some kind that transmits white noise on the frequencies used by RFID, which if nothing else would thoroughly screw everything up. Of course, it will be obvious that you are doing this, and we should expect to see such things made illegal (and they probably are already in a strict sense, depending on spectrum licensing laws, I expect.