Use of RFID tags raises privacy concerns

'Smart' tags could profile consumers, critics contend

Privacy concerns related to the use of radio frequency identification (RFID) technology got an airing at a recent California state legislative hearing.

RFID, a nascent technology that's expected to eventually replace bar codes, uses low-powered radio transmitters to read data stored in tags that are embedded with tiny chips and antennas.

Proponents of the technology say such "smart" tags can store more information than conventional bar codes, enabling retailers and manufacturers to track items at the unit level.

But privacy advocates who testified at the California hearing earlier this month said the technology has the potential to seriously infringe on personal privacy.

"If ever there was a technology calling for public-policy assessment, it is RFID," said Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, an advocacy organization in San Diego. "RFID is essentially invisible and can result in both profiling and locational tracking of consumers without their knowledge or consent."

Placing RFID tags on consumer products will allow merchants to do location-based tracking or profiling of customers, Givens said. For example, the information contained on RFID tags could be picked up by RFID readers in a store to reveal where a consumer purchased an item or how much he paid for it. This could result in unacceptable profiling of consumers, she said.

The unique information contained in each RFID tag could also be captured by various readers and used to track a person's movements through tollbooths, public transportation or airports, Givens said.

"So far, the development and implementation of RFID has been done in a public-policy void. What is needed is a formal technology assessment process to be done by some sort of a nonpartisan body comprised of all stakeholders, including consumers," she said.

That sentiment was echoed by Liz McIntyre, a spokeswoman for Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering, a consumer advocacy group that also testified at the hearing.

"Without some sort of oversight, this technology could create a very frightening society," McIntyre said. "It gives [companies] almost X-ray vision on the customers they sell to."

Therefore, some sort of moratorium on the use of the technology should be imposed until privacy issues are addressed, she said.

Such concerns come at a time when several bellwether corporations are piloting or evaluating the technology. Wal-Mart Stores Inc., for instance, is requiring its top 100 suppliers to affix RFID tags on all pallets used to move goods in its supply chain. Others looking at the technology include American Express Co., United Parcel Service Inc. and United Air Lines Inc.

"RFID per se is not the big issue," said Greg Pottie, an engineer at the Center for Embedded Network Sensing at the University of California, Los Angeles. "The major questions relate to sharing of digital information, however that information is collected."

A representative from AIM Inc., The Association for Automatic Identification and Data Capture Technologies, a Pittsburgh-based proponent of the use of RFID technology, also testified at the hearing but didn't return calls seeking comment. However, the organization has created a workgroup that's focused on addressing privacy concerns relating to RFID.

According to the organization's Web site, it believes that "RFID presents no more of a threat to individual privacy than the use of cell phones, toll tags, credit cards, the use of ATM machines and access-control badges."

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