rfid Radio Frequency Identification

RFID - What You Can Do to Protect Your Privacy

While corporate giants tout the merits of RFID technology, civil liberties advocates point out that the ability to track people, products, vehicles, and even currency would create an Orwellian world where law enforcement officials and nosy retailers could read the contents of a handbag—perhaps without a person's knowledge—simply by installing RFID readers nearby. Such a fear is not unfounded. Currently, some RFID readers have the capacity to read data transmitted by many different RFID tag.

This means that if a person enters a store carrying several RFID tags—for example, in articles of clothing or cards carried in a wallet—one RFID reader can read the data emitted by all of the tags, and not simply the signal relayed by in-store products. This capacity enables retailers with RFID readers to compile a more complete profile of shoppers than would be possible by simply scanning the bar codes of products a consumer purchases.

Even the RFID industry itself is aware of the threat to privacy posed by the development and installation of tags in commonplace items. Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering (CASPIAN) recently located internal public relations documents which detail how RFID developers plan to offset public opposition to the technology. The documents, prepared by Fleishman-Hillard, a communications consultancy, suggest that RFID industry leaders are planning a public relations campaign designed to counter opposition to the pervasive use of RFID technology.

The documents detailing how such a campaign may unfold begin by outlining obstacles that hinder the widespread implementation of RFID technology. These obstacles include the facts that: "consumers are very concerned about invasions of their privacy," are "cynical about the government and private sector's commitment to protecting privacy," and are "inclined to believe that businesses have little incentive to protect consumers' personal information." In response, the documents cite the need for the development of a proactive plan that would "neutralize opposition" and "mitigate possible public backlash." One method of doing so suggested by the documents is through the creation of a Privacy Advisory Council made up of "well known, credible, and credentialed experts" who may be "potentially adversarial advocates." The documents cite EPIC as an example of such a potential council member. Although EPIC has been approached by others on this issue, EPIC will not serve on such a council or consult for other companies.

The proposed uses of RFID tags pose exponentially greater risks to personal privacy. Many technology experts predict the development of a seamless network of millions of RFID receivers strategically placed around the globe in airports, seaports, highways, distribution centers, warehouses, retail stores, and consumers' homes, all of which are constantly reading, processing, and evaluating consumers behaviors and purchases. In addition to undermining a consumer's ability to enjoy a lifestyle in relative anonymity, critics of the technology counter that the information gathered by RFID readers could be obtained by the government for surveillance or monitoring the activities of citizens, or even misused by hackers and criminals. Even more, the ever-expanding use of RFID chips would leave no aspect of life safe from the prying eyes of retail and corporate giants. Chips integrated into commonplace products such as floor tiles, shelf paper, cabinets, appliance, exercise equipment, and grocery and packaged products would allow even our most intimate activities to be monitored.

Opponents of RFID tags have proposed measures to side-step the chips' relentless information-gathering, ranging from disabling the tags by crushing or puncturing them, to simply boycotting the products of companies which use or plan to implement RFID technology. One way to destroy the tags is to microwave them for several seconds. Another method is to obstruct the information gathered by RFID readers by using blocker tags. When carried by a consumer, blocker tags impair readers by simulating many ordinary RFID tags simultaneously. Blocker tags can also block selectively by simulating only designated ID codes, such as those issued by a particular manufacturer.

In an attempt to soothe consumers' fears, companies have argued that most items tagged with RFID chips can't be tracked beyond an operating distance of about five feet. However, while this may be true today, industry experts say plans for building far more sensitive RFID signal receivers are in the works.

As RFID technology becomes more advanced, consumers may ultimately lose all ability to evade products implanted with chips. Corning researchers have developed tiny, barcoded beads that are invisible to the human eye. The microscopic beads can be embedded in inks to tag currency and other documents, and even attached to DNA molecules. They can also be added to substances like automobile paint, explosives, or other products that law enforcement officers or retailers have a strong interest in tracking. Researchers say the technology could be ready for commercial use in three to six years.

EPIC Resources

EPIC's VeriChip page
EPIC's Children and RFID Systems page

Information provided by http://www.epic.org/privacy/rfid/