January 02, 2004
RFID and privacy

Adam is one of the persons online I regularly discuss with, and it's always a pleasure because he always supplies good justifications for his arguments. However, I must disagree with him on his recent piece on RFID Privacy.

Although the sheer volumes of customer data possible to collect today are already unmanageable for most, if not all, companies, the broad front at which RFID is being introduced in ordinary retail products, (even womens' panties(!)) I'd personally exercise caution:

I'm not advocating bringing out the tinfoil hats just yet, I'm just saying that security through obscurity isn't necessarily the way to go in a world where Moore's Law is still going strong... Apply chain-wide RFID data collection and a hefty "AI"-driven data warehouse, and trends, if not individual, but at least by store or customer groups/geographies should be possible to detect - even today.....

RFID is a great tool; great for warehouse logistics as well as facilitating checkouts in shops; we must just make sure customers' privacy rights aren't ignored.

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The other thing to keep in mind is that RFID is really useless for the sort of tracking discussed in the article. The effective read distance for RFID tags is extremely short. The Wal-Mart experiment was to see if they could tell when an individual lipstick container was removed from the shelf. In order to do that the read distance would have to be shorter than the distance between two shelves. Otherwise, lipstick could be constantly moved around without any tracking.

If the Gap were to use RFID to track inventory at the warehouse, these tags would require a short range as well. When a worker brings a reader near a shelf, you want it to recognize the box that the worker is scanning, not the boxes on either side of it.

And in the store, for item level tracking, RFID readers at the doors or at the register would erroneously think items had left the store simply because someone walks past while holding it unless those RFID tags only worked when brought in almost direct contact with the readers.

Sure it's theoretically possible to put consumer tracking RFID tags in merchandise, but there are other ways of tracking your behavior that are easier, cheaper, and more effective.

Posted by: Adam Kalsey on January 2, 2004 06:14 PM

With all due respect to the poster of the previous comment, I think that he is incorrect. Just recently a company has created a system that reads a Ecochiptag tag at an 11-metre range. If the range continues increase at this rate privacy issues become very real indeed.

Posted by: RFID Log on May 15, 2004 03:26 AM

Distance is not the issue in regards to privacy.

How many of you experience invasions of personal space on a daily basis? You willingly let people into your "comfort zone" for brief periods of time: riding the bus, riding the train, waiting in line at the bank, roaming through crowded malls.

The fact is that it would be trivial to carry a reader with me and go about my normal business. At the end of the day I will check my reader and see how much information it has harvested. Used in this way, I don't even need to target specific individuals, I'll let the randomness of who I stand next to create an anonymity buffer - the chance that you remember "that guy who stood kinda close to me in the crowded elevator/train station/cross walk" when you're talking to your credit card company about your identity theft is so absurd.

How about when they start putting RFID in your passport? Now you're travelling... you're wandering through masses of crowds of people you will NEVER remember... with a portable rfid reader, all the Americans in this crowd have now been identified... in its MOST benign use, these people are now all more likely targets for mugging / pickpocketing. At its worst? I'll let your imagination wander...

This technology is a boon to ONE industry: Logistics. And I still haven't seen the hard cold dollar value of how much it would save to see if it's really THAT worth it.

There is no reason to force this technology into every cranny of our lives. It is a tool for a specific job, nothing more - when you need to hammer in a nail, don't go get a crappy screwdriver and bang it in with your fist wrapped around the plastic handle. You might get the nail driven in, but you're gonna end up with ugly dents in the plaster, bruised, bloody knuckles and a lingering resentment to every facet of that stupid picture now hanging on the nail...

But I digress...

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