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Privacy vs RFID

Enter ?RFID? into any Internet search engine and within seconds there will be no doubt that interest in radio frequency identification (RFID) technology is rapidly gaining momentum around the world.

Without a doubt, RFID is one of the hottest technology topics today, but what is it exactly?

Simply stated, RFID systems are made up of transponders and readers that enable fast and automated data collection using radio waves. The readers are used to ?spot? transponders. Applications are built around where and when transponders have been ?spotted?.

Transponders typically comprise a microchip and an antenna. Together they are used to broadcast a globally unique identification number, which can be associated with detailed information in a database.

More sophisticated transponders can carry additional information that can be changed, but few applications warrant the extra cost associated with such tags that are both readable and writable.

Transponders or RFID tags either require power from RFID readers or have their own power source in the form of a battery. Those requiring power from readers are known as ?passive? tags, while those with their own power sources are known as ?active? tags.

Real applications, real benefits

The interest in RFID is not surprising when considering the almost limitless applications for the technology that are easily translated into cost savings.

Within the next two years, SA may see the implementation of RFID-enabled car licences that will enable numerous opportunities for revenue collection, crime prevention and job creation through the development of new services.

Such services could include easy parking garage access, toll collection, vehicle location and even usage profiling for insurance purposes, to name but a few.

Privacy concerns

Unfortunately, while most right-minded people see endless possibilities for RFID technology, there are others who oppose it, claiming it poses a threat to privacy.

Strangely enough, these same people do not raise any objections to carrying a mobile phone, which can be used to track their every movement. Unlike RFID technology that only ?spot? tags in specific locations, cellular technology can be used to locate a user at any given time.

Opposition groups such as Caspian in the US and FoeBuD in Europe are leading protests against RFID technology and have already conducted several campaigns against it.

These groups argue that RFID ushers in a new era of data collection and thus adds a new dimension to monitoring and manipulation possibilities. They have also raised concerns that RFID signals can be intercepted.

For this reason, there has been strong opposition from liberal groups in the US to government plans to include RFID in passports and other identification documents.

Modern day Luddites

Despite the opposition, 13 US federal government agencies are either already using RFID or are planning to do so and some government officials have warned against the hasty drafting of anti-RFID legislation by ?technologically impaired? politicians.

Local and European RFID experts appear to agree and have tended to dismiss the outcry from "Luddite privacy people? and emphasised the need for education around RFID.

In other words, there is a need to get real about what RFID really can and cannot do.

Experts have pointed out that use of RFID in identity documents or cards will be restricted to passive tags, which means the likelihood of unlawful interception is extremely limited by the laws of physics, making it practically impossible to read an RFID tag in a passport being carried in pocket.

The laws of physics dictate that due to interference and absorption of radio waves, passive RFID tag read ranges are practically as low as 10m under normal conditions.

If one then also considers that such RFID tags would broadcast only a unique identification number that is merely a pointer to a field in a database, it is really difficult to understand what all the fuss is about.

What is the use of intercepting a number when there is no way of tying it to any other usable information?

Finding the middle road

One can only hope that as RFID-based systems become more common, begin to deliver real value, and there is greater understanding of the technology, resistance to it will diminish as it has in the four years since the US Department of Defence starting issuing RFID cards to employees and retirees around the world.

While finding it difficult to understand the privacy concerns of those that some RFID supporters have characterised as members of the ?Flat Earth Society?, perhaps there is a middle path to be followed.

Something supporters and opponents of RFID seem to have in common is the realisation that more information and greater understanding of the technology is important. All those seeking to implement RFID-based systems should accept the responsibility of ensuring people know exactly what information is being collected and who can access it.

In the light of knowledge and understanding, RFID cannot fail to win over those basing their opposition on privacy concerns. But then there are those who oppose RFID for theological reasons, with some claiming RFID may become the Mark of the Beast.

For this line of argument, there is only one response: Get real!

Warwick Ashford

ItWeb, Südafrika, 05. August 2005

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