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Technology's Benedict Arnold?

Jeffrey R. Harrow
Principal Technologist, The Harrow Group

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(read his bio)

RFID (Radio Frequency IDentification) tags also called EPC (Electronic Product Code tags) are poised to replace the ubiquitous UPC bar codes that adorn most everything we buy. And that may be a good thing. Unlike UPC bar codes which have to be individually "looked at" by an optical reader (think grocery store checkouts), the RFID tag removes that line of sight restriction. As the "RF" (Radio Frequency) portion of their name suggests, RFID tags are queried by radio waves, not by light, and so they can be read at a distance.

On the positive side this means that we could simply push our filled shopping cart through the door without stopping and unloading the cart; the name and price of each individual item would instantly be totaled and deducted from whatever payment account you have set up with the store. If shopping carts were retrofitted to hold open bags into which you could drop your purchases, this would significantly speed up the shopping experience (and reduce labor required by the store.) There are also many other beneficial uses, such as inventory and stock control, as is already being practiced to some extent by the likes of the world's largest retailer, Wal-Mart.

But it's precisely because these tags can be read at a distance that there is much (valid) controversy around the security and privacy of our walking around with a wallet (or car or home) full of remotely readable things. It's certainly conceivable that RFID readers scattered at store front doors, or more surreptitiously placed in other areas, could read the information from any RFID-equipped item (think credit card, driver's license, passport, and far more.) Proponents say that this isn't a significant concern because the reader's range is limited to a couple of feet. But as is the case with many radio technologies, specialized antennas that enable devices to work at far more than their intended distance are not hard to make. For example, special WiFi antennas can dramatically extend the distance over which the signals can be used if they're pointed in the correct direction).

Addressing This With 'Policy.'

I discussed this issue with Randy Sweeney, a founding board member of MIT's "AutoID Center" (which is a prime seat of RFID technology), and he provides us with some personal insights into this issue. He points out how the AutoID Center, as one driver of RFID tags, has attempted to address the dark side of such tags at the get-go:

"...We of the MITAutoIDCenter thought long and hard over the potential privacy abuse of serialized tagging while creating the EPC system. This was considered a serious issue literally from the beginning of the center and we did not stand idle.

As such, there are policy requirements on those who would use EPC tagging, binding requirements forbidding the tracking of people written into the patent licensing, as well as technology features like the ability to electronically kill tags that were incorporated into the design.

To my knowledge, I know of no other technology development group that has proactively considered the societal implications of their work to such depth and incorporated such protections into the design.

[One solution is that] if a consumer does not want his [RFID tag-equipped items] read as he walks down the street, the tags can be killed at purchase. [But can consumers trust that the tags have truly been "killed?" - Jeff]

In the future, additional technology safeguards, such as non-promiscuous reading of tags, will allow EPC tags to continue to serve their owner while maintaining their owner's privacy. Perhaps then I can find out where all my left socks are hiding -- without announcing the entry of my gold toe safety socks at every retailer's front door.

I ... assure you that the folks at the AutoIDCenter (now EPCGlobal and EPCLabs) do not just consider money in creating the electronic product code system... Instead, we continue to responsibly work to reduce the potential for harm from an exciting technology that will transform the world of manufacture, distribution and commerce."

(You can find more information on the results of MIT's original efforts which are now called EPC [Electronic Product Code] at these sites).

Addressing This With Technology.

Exploring other potential solutions to these privacy concerns, Steven Telsey of RSA Security points out that there already are technological solutions in the works to augment and enforce "policy" solutions. As described in this abstract of an RSA paper, he suggests:

"We propose the use of "selective blocking" by "blocker tags" as a way of protecting consumers from unwanted scanning of RFID tags attached to items they may be carrying or wearing.

While an ordinary RFID tag is a simple, cheap (e.g. five-cent) passive device intended as an "electronic bar-code" for use in supply-chain management, a blocker tag is a cheap passive RFID device that can simulate many ordinary RFID tags simultaneously. When carried by a consumer, a blocker tag thus "blocks" RFID readers. It can do so universally by simulating all possible RFID tags. Or a blocker tag can block selectively by simulating only selected subsets of ID codes, such as those by a particular manufacturer, or those in a designated "privacy zone."

We believe that this approach, when used with appropriate care, provides a very attractive alternative for addressing privacy concerns raised by the potential (and likely) widespread use of RFID tags in consumer products.

We also discuss possible abuses arising from blocker tags, and means for detecting and dealing with them."

Even without blocking tags that would block the reading of all tags within their sphere of influence, portable objects could always be encased in good old aluminum foil, or a specially designed RF-proof bag (a Farady cage) to hide their tags existence.

I can see a legitimate market for such privacy uses, but rendering tags unreadable would also enable less savory activities, such as hiding the fact that someone is carrying an item out of a store without the store electronically noticing (think shoplifting, industrial espionage, and worse...)

Speaking Of "Policy."

The legal protections surrounding the use of wireless tags are of course in their infancy, but as is so often the case, California may be taking the lead. As pointed out by Chris Wolfe, the Feb. 24 CNET describes California Senate Bill 1834, introduced by Senator Debra Bowen, which seems to touch on many of the most important RFID tag privacy issues. If this bill becomes law, anyone using wireless tags or readers will have to notify the public that it's doing so, and a business using wireless tags would be required to "detach or destroy" them before a consumer leaves the store (preventing ongoing tracking and associations). Most importantly, this bill "...would also require consumers to give express consent before businesses or agencies could track and collect information about them via RFID." There are similar activities happening in other states as well.

In my opinion, requiring consumers to complete a clear, explicit "opt-in" form before their personal information can be used or shared is the only way to provide viable legal consumer protections (unlike situations where businesses can use your information by default, and you must explicitly " opt-out" if you don't want the information used.) Kudos to Senator Bowen for addressing this at the get-go, and as with other California bills in the past this might provide a good template for national legislation.

Of course we've just touched the surface of policy and technological solutions to RFID privacy that may help to address these issues, and I also have no doubt that "Blocker Tags" and other technological solutions will appear to fill any privacy voids that remain after implementation.

The End Result Is Up To Us.

This discussion might be seen as implying that RFID tags will be a technological Benedict Arnold, committing treason against our privacy. And that raises the question as to why we are even considering their implementation. But it's important to remember that these and other privacy and potential abuse issues are hardly unique to RFID tags. Randy Sweeney put it well, reminding us that "...any technological advance can be abused. Fire, pointy sticks, chemistry, EPC [etc.]..."

As we've all seen time and time again, the introduction of every new technology can bring both positive results and negative potentials. Which is exactly why each of us must monitor, and control through our elected representatives, how we choose to allow all such technologies to impact the goals and tenets of our overall society.

We, and our kids, will be living in the society that we create...

This essay is original and was specifically prepared for publication at Future Brief. A brief biography of Jeff Harrow can be found at our main Commentary page. Other essays written by Jeff Harrow can be found at his web site. Jeff receives e-mail at Other websites are welcome to link to this essay, with proper credit given to Future Brief and Mr. Harrow. This page will remain posted on the Internet indefinitely at this web address to provide a stable page for those linking to it.

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© 2004, Jeffrey Harrow, all rights reserved.

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