RFID’s dark side

But it also has a dark side, according to scientist Daniel Munyan, who summed it up in a single observation. The devices that read RFID tags are called readers, as you would expect, but originally they had a more ominous name: “Interrogators,” later changed for PR reasons. The problem with RFID tags was that they broadcast all their information indiscriminately to whichever reading device communicated with them, Munyan pointed out. Thus there was a serious issue of privacy and security for people and organisations that owned that information. RFID tag data was vulnerable to espionage. Customers in a shop using RFID inventory tags on goods should seek to know if the tags were being used only for theft control, he advised, or to track customers on their way through the shop. Retailers might do this to surreptitiously build up a database of customer’ shopping habits for marketing purposes – an intrusion into privacy that could help profits, but also risked offending those same customers. He cited three factors that would shape the technology’s future: “Legislation, lawsuits and boycotts.” He said the latter two would be instituted by people who felt their privacy had been invaded by inappropriate use of RFID tagging data, which would bring about laws to curb misuses. For a better understanding of the privacy issues involved, Munyan suggested seeing the 1998 film Enemy of The State, in which a lawyer played by Will Smith is tracked via satellite by the film’s villains through devices embedded in his clothing.

The film made its points by exaggeration, Munyan noted, but it has been shown by activists against this kind of intrusive electronic tracking. One problem in fighting RFID’s abuse by "bad people" was that, as Munyan put it, “terrorists and criminals are not FCC-compliant.” (The FCC or Federal Communications Commission is the US Government agency which regulates radio communications and thus RFID). For instance, they might use RFID readers capable of communicating with tags from a greater distance than that permitted by national regulations allowed, for purposes of espionage or snooping.


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