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CeBIT Buzzing with RFID Technology Debuts

HANNOVER, GERMANY�Perhaps the biggest enterprise IT theme at the CeBIT 2004 show here has been the emergence of radio frequency identification (RFID) tag technology.

Developers of business application software, mobile phones and security software all demonstrated new offerings that use the technology.

Nokia Corp. launched its Mobile RFID Kit, designed to turn the Nokia 5140 GSM mobile phone into an RFID reader for field force personnel.

One of the key capabilities of SAP AG's NetWeaver 2004 release announced here is integration with the company's Auto-ID infrastructure, which will allow customers to integrate RFID data into their business applications.

PeopleSoft Inc. likewise announced support for attaching RFID tags to outbound shipments in its EnterpriseOne 8.10 release touted here.

Large retailers such as Wal-Mart and Target, along with the Department of Defense, have mandated that their suppliers attach RFID tags to shipments to assist in order tracking and supply-chain management.

Click here to read an analysis of RFID's capabilities.

But the RFID craze at CeBIT extended beyond the supply chain. RSA Security Inc., a pioneer in RFID, demonstrated a prototype called the RFID Blocker Tag at the show. The tag can be placed over an RFID tag on a product to block the tag from transmitting information. Company officials said the Blocker Tag could be used at a check-out counter to block the RFID tag from transmitting information after the purchase.

That's assuming RFID ever gets to the retail level. The technology could benefit retailers by creating "smart shelves" that notify an inventory system automatically when products on the shelf are running low. But privacy advocates such as Rena Tangens, co-founder and board member of German data protection group FoeBuD e.V., are already railing against the deployment of RFID at the retail level.

"We are not against RFID in the supply chain," Tangens said during a lively discussion about RFID and privacy at CeBIT on Friday morning. "But we make it very clear that trials of the technology at the item level in stores�using smart shelves and loyalty cards�are a danger to privacy."

Tangens' worry is that RFID tags could track customers' behavior post-purchase, and that customers who carry loyalty or rewards cards for a particular retailer could unwittingly be tracked and personally identifiable as soon as they enter a store.

She advocates the passage of legislation tightly regulating and restricting the use of RFID tags at the retail level before any further trials of the technology are carried out.

Not surprisingly, business leaders speaking at the discussion don't agree with the idea of pausing trials.

"Legislation could take five, six or seven years, if not more. I don't agree that we should stop the trials that are taking place," said Philip Calderbank, European division vice president of The ePC Group Ltd., a consulting firm that specializes in advising companies, including retailers, on how they can deploy and benefit from RFID technologies.

"I'm not anti-legislation, I'm anti-legislation that holds back the development of the technology."

Art Coviello, CEO and president of RSA, stressed that the privacy issue of RFID is "not black and white." Coviello said the technology has advantages for both businesses and consumers while conceding that its use raises legitimate privacy issues.

"The privacy issue does need to be addressed," Coviello said. "But it shouldn't have to come at the expense of the technology." He pushed his own company's technology for helping to solve those issues. But Coviello said resolution of the privacy issue goes beyond blocking the tags after purchase.

"There needs to be cooperation between and among individual citizens, corporations, government and technology vendors," he said. "Everyone has to realize that they have an equal responsibility for what's going on."

Dennis Callaghan

3sat Online, Mainz , 19. März 2004

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