RFID and Privacy
26 Pages Posted: 1 Nov 2004
Date Written: October 2004
RFID technology is hot. Tagging of pallets and cases of consumer packaged goods is well under way. The move to embed RFID in U.S. passports has distressingly strong force, and we can confidently expect other large-scale applications to be implemented over the next few years. At the same time, not all of the technology's hype has basis, and the business case for general item-level tagging of consumer items seems equivocal.
If the technology does become widespread in some facets of everyday life, that deployment will generate a substantial set of privacy threats. RFID-equipped goods and documents may blab information about themselves, and hence about the people carrying them, to people whom the subjects might not have chosen to inform. Readers' surveillance capability will follow the target through space, and reveal how the target moves through space. A target will face the most extensive privacy threats in situations where data collectors can make connections between her tag data and her personally identifying information. Some characteristics of typical implementations may mitigate those threats, but they will not eliminate them.
It seems unlikely that RFID's privacy threats will be usefully addressed through privacy-sensitive design of tags and readers. A trade group has promulgated specifications for a kill command, allowing retailers to disable tags at point of sale, but I doubt that this approach will be effective. Traditional fair information practice principles. at first glance ill-suited to dealing with this technology, may suggest some more useful directions. The simplest solution, in one key area, may simply be to ensure that RFID tags attached to individual items in the retail sales chain are clearly labeled and easily removable.
Keywords: RFID, privacy
JEL Classification: K00
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation