Privacy advocates: RFID technical review needed

Advocates call on FTC or other agencies to assess RFID's effects on privacy

WASHINGTON -- Privacy advocates called for the U.S. Federal Trade Commission or other government agencies to initiative a comprehensive assessment of the potential effects of RFID (radio frequency identification) technology, during an FTC workshop on RFID Monday.

The FTC or other agencies could conduct an "impartial" assessment of RFID and its potential effects on privacy, said Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. Some advocates who trumpeted RFID's potential to reduce supply-chain costs called for a public education campaign to educate the public on the potential positive uses of RFID, but Givens said a public campaign needs to include potential privacy concerns.

"It's very important to distinguish between a true consumer education campaign and a public relations campaign," she said.

RFID uses small computer chips and antennas that are integrated into a paper or plastic label. Those chips can then be read by an electronic scanner from distances upward of 25 feet (750 centimeters). Wal-Mart Stores Inc. plans to phase in use of RFID, with major suppliers of its north Texas stores required to use RFID chips on pallets and cases by January 2005. The U.S. Department of Defense plans to require suppliers to use RFID tags by early 2005.

Even though most panelists at the FTC workshop said widespread item-level RFID tagging, on products such as clothing and electronics, is years away, it's not too early to start thinking about the privacy implications, Givens said. Growing media coverage of RFID and privacy concerns is why a large-scale technology assessment is needed now, she said.

The day-long RFID workshop in Washington, D.C., included panel discussions on current and anticipated uses of RFID chips and on best practices for using the information stored on RFID chips. Advocates of RFID talked of its potential for makers of consumer goods, retailers and even consumers. RFID will allow retailers to track products in their supply chains, making for a more efficient, and cheaper, movement of goods, said Dan White, technical evangelist for RFID in the New Technologies Retail Solutions Division of NCR Corp.

A major problem at retail stores is products being misplaced on the shelves, but a more efficient supply chain will eventually result in lower prices to consumers, White said. "The key thing in retail is if you can't find it, you can't sell it," he said.

Eventually, consumers will be able to buy RFID chips and readers, and find things that are easily lost, including car keys and TV remote controls, White said.

Most consumers, however, do not know what RFID is, said John Parkinson, vice president and chief technologist at Capgemini SA. In an Internet survey released Monday by Capgemini and the National Retail Federation, 77 of respondents said they were unfamiliar with RFID technology. A majority of respondents identified several potential benefits, including reduced costs to consumers, faster recovery of stolen goods, and faster product recalls.

But a majority of respondents also expressed concerns about how consumer data would be used, whether consumers would be subjected to more direct marketing, and whether consumers could be tracked using RFID chips.

Parkinson, chairman of the Information Technology Association of America's RFID Standards Task Group, recommended that retailers and other RFID users adopt guidelines for the appropriate use of RFID and begin educating the public about the potential uses for RFID. "It would be better to communicate with consumers now rather than later," he said. "Some of the things they worry about are things industry only dreams it could do."

But some proposals by RFID users to protect consumers may not go far enough, Givens said. One idea, to give consumers the power to kill RFID tags when they leave stores, may be inconvenient for consumers or may be discouraged by retailers that will want the RFID tags active when the consumer returns a product, Givens said. A woman with two small children and a cart full of groceries may not want to take the time to run each item through a scanner to kill the tags, she said.

"Killing tags or blocking them does not address in-store tracking," she added.

When RFID tags leave stores, they will continue to broadcast information to all readers unless turned off, added Deirdre Mulligan, director of the Samuelson Law, Technology and Public Policy Clinic at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law. "My RFID is talking to everybody," she said. "There's no access control on this."

While Mulligan joined Givens in calling for a federal government assessment of RFID, others on the panel suggested it was too early in the adoption of RFID for government to get involved. William MacLeod, a Washington, D.C., lawyer and former director of the FTC Bureau of Consumer Protection, said new regulations aren't needed because the FTC already has the power to take action against consumer fraud.

"You can bet there will be FTC enforcement long before 'RFID' appears in a law," MacLeod said.

MacLeod and other supporters of RFID encouraged the free market to determine the rules for RFID uses.

"We need to find out what the technology can actually achieve before we put the brakes on,'' added Mallory Duncan, senior vice president and general counsel for the National Retail Federation.

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