RFID Proponents Respond to Consumer Privacy Concerns

Proponents of radio frequency identification used to have a quick and easy response to consumer advocates charging that the technology

RFID defenders say such concerns are overblown--a common theme at this conference. One argument is that the only information companies are interested in storing on RFID tags are serial numbers, which are meaningless without access to the database where all the information about the item lives. Only the privileged eyes of certain employees would have access to that database, executives say. Another argument is that RFID tags only submit signals only when prompted by a reader within close range, generally a few feet at most.

EPCglobal, which guides RFID standards development, is also urging companies with RFID initiatives to follow its privacy policy, which focuses on informing consumers. Wal-Mart did with its Dallas test involving HP products, Board said. Wal-Mart posted notices on shelves carrying the tagged items with an 800 number and a Web site address offering more information about the tags. However, Wal-Mart did not remove or disable the tags after consumer bought the items--a practice that privacy advocates have demanded. Board noted that the tags were attached to the packaging, which consumers were likely to throw away.

Retailers and consumer-goods companies are hesitant to agree to removing tags from items at the time of purchase for several reasons. One reason is that RFID tags could help with returns by exposing people trying to get a refund for a product they never really bought, or one they purchased from another store. In the future, technology proponents envision medicine cabinets and home appliances equipped with RFID readers, alerting people to expired drugs and automatically selecting the gentle cycle on the washing machine for delicate clothing.

One of the valid concerns about RFID is what companies plan to do with all the detailed data they'll be able to collect about consumers, said Daniel Engles, director of research at Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Auto-ID Lab, an RFID research group. But, Engles added, that's a concern for all kinds of technologies that record people's activities and whereabouts, including cell phones and credit cards.

"Most people don't realize they're giving up a certain amount of privacy every time they use their cell phone," Engles said. "The question is how that information is being used. That's where the real concerns are."

And on that issue, as with many in the developing realm of RFID--the jury is still out.