Walmart is planning to use passive RFID tags on individual items of clothing, and perhaps others products they sell, so as to better track inventory and its theft-based component, shrinkage, as it's known. I personally don't have a problem with this. I am, in fact, amazed that passive RFID has gotten so cheap that it's now applicable not just to pallets, but also to individual consumer-grade products like jeans. The inventory-management element is really intriguing - knowing what's on the shelves via quick pass of a nearby reader (sensor) can assist in maximizing purchases, as consumers who don't find what they want after a cursory search will usually head for the exits and not to the understaffed customer-service desk. Mis-shelved items will remain such for only so long. This looks like a win-win.
But, in a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, some proponents of privacy have raised concerns about the possibility of tying specific individuals to specific items via RFID. This is at face value a reasonable position; similar concerns have been voiced about the new US Passport that also contains a hidden passive RFID chip. And, once again, it's important to point out that, at least here in the States, there is no Constitutional guarantee of privacy, privacy being the political counterpart of security. Some have noted that the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution seems to provide at least a measure of privacy. Unfortunately, the Fourth Amendment only covers the relationship between a citizen and the government, and not relationships between citizens and corporations, Walmart being only one example. And I'm not sure that the Constitution really matters as much as it should anymore, as it seems the federal government here routinely operates, with impunity, outside the bounds of the Constitution as a matter of standard operating procedure, AKA expediency. Don't believe me? Read the Ninth and Tenth Amendments, and let's talk.
But to the subject at hand: I'm not concerned that someone with an RFID reader will follow people (other than perhaps celebrities) around or scan their garbage, but I am concerned about how much information that a reasonable person would construe to be private is now collected by corporations for marketing purposes. I therefore propose a new law, as follows:
Any information regarding a particular individual that is not overtly public by nature, or otherwise required to be made public by law, shall remain the exclusive, private property of the individual, and shall remain such unless explicitly released by the individual for an expressed particular purpose.
So, if you're in a Walmart, and you buy a particular pair of jeans, that information (regarding the product purchased and even that a sale was made) is private. Walmart might record you on a camera for security purposes, and might record what jeans you did in fact purchase. But this information is private and belongs to you - Walmart cannot use it for any purpose unless you explicitly so authorize. However, if you are outdoors in public wearing those new jeans, such information is clearly being made public by you, and is therefore not private. What I'm really proposing is that anyone who gathers non-public info on anyone should be required to hold that info in confidence unless explicitly authorized, on a case-by-case basis, to release it. This goes for everyone - corporations, credit bureaus, retail stores - everyone. Period. No exceptions. And this right cannot be waived. So the issue providing the motivation here is not really about technology at all - it's about politics.
I'm personally beginning to think that it's time for a constitutional convention, as is provided for under Article V of the US Constitution. Yes, I know this would bring out every wacko and extremist in the country, but, really, it's time to get back on a footing that respects the individual once and for all.
Mathias is a principal at Farpoint Group, a wireless advisory firm in Ashland, Mass.