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RFID Privacy Is No Laughing Matter

Written by Dan Schell, Supply Chain/Point of Sale Technologies Editor, Business Solutions Magazine

Doug was snoring in the library — again. But on that day, my friend's snoring signaled the beginning of a prank I would later remember as my introduction to RFID (radio frequency identification) technology.

It was 1983, my freshman year of college. I was sitting at a table in the library with some other guys, including one we called "Tank." I haven't a clue why we called him that, but I do remember he was the group jokester.

Doug was sitting behind us in one of those desks with the high walls on each side. His back was to us and his legs were bent back under his chair. In such a position, his heels lifted out of his shabby-looking sneakers.

At the sound of Doug's rumblings, Tank took a book from a shelf and carefully removed a 2-inch-square label stuck to the inside of the back cover. Once extracted, he revealed to our group what looked like some flattened copper wire. Then, with a smirk on his face, he carefully slipped it inside the heel of Doug's left shoe. Tank quickly whispered the purpose of the "wire," and we all eagerly watched for Doug's awakening. When he finally woke up and began to exit through the turnstile at the library's front desk, he set off the alarm indicating the presence of a library book. We quietly snickered as he was forced to empty his book bag and remove his coat for the librarian. Only when the RFID tag was discovered in his shoe did we all turn away, still shaking from laughter.

Now, 20 years later, there are groups of people that really don't find putting RFID tags in shoes very funny. In fact, these people are concerned that if RFID chips, tags, or labels are embedded into everyday items such as our clothes or groceries, our whereabouts will be tracked and our personal privacy will be violated. They think this technology, which is designed for increasing efficiencies in a supply chain, will be used after a consumer has left a store. They fear a world where strategically placed RFID readers will be able to track you through a chip hidden in your underwear or even in a $20 bill.

How Will You Address Privacy Concerns?
For VARs considering selling RFID, these types of concerns shouldn't be dismissed as mere paranoia. Privacy advocates have raised the level of RFID awareness by voicing their fears to the media. Don't think your customers, no matter how pro-RFID they may be, won't be asking you about some of these issues.

So, be prepared. Learn what industry organizations such as EPCglobal, Auto-ID Labs, and AIM are saying about RFID privacy. Namely, understand that the following are some generally accepted tenets of RFID privacy:

  • Consumers must be notified if an RFID tag is in any product.
  • Each RFID tag must have a "kill command" to stop the tag from broadcasting post-purchase.
  • No tags should be linked to any personally identifiable information.

Right now in the supply chain RFID technology's primary use is for carton and pallet tracking — an application that should evoke no privacy concerns. The much-feared item-level tracking of consumer products isn't likely to happen for many years. Nevertheless, a clear understanding of RFID privacy concerns is probably as essential as having the expertise to implement this technology in a warehouse. Do your homework now so you don't get caught off guard — like Doug.