• United States
IDG Enterprise Consulting Director

RFID: A bad science privacy problem?

May 27, 20046 mins
Data CenterRFID

I’m opening the mailbag this week and I want to begin with a very thoughtful letter from Brad Templeton, chairman of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, regarding the contest I announced last week for the best use of radio frequency identification (RFID) technology.

Relying on the government to protect your privacy is like asking a peeping Tom to install your window blinds.John Perry Barlow

Dear Vorticians,

I’m opening the mailbag this week and I want to begin with a very thoughtful letter from Brad Templeton, chairman of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (, regarding the contest I announced last week for the best use of radio frequency identification (RFID) technology. (Prize: Free VORTEX 2005 admission for the coolest use of RFID.)

Vortician Templeton’s was the first letter I received and it’s clear he isn’t as enthusiastic about RFID as am I, or other readers. “John, at the EFF we keep being scared by the uses of RFID we come up with. John Gilmore, for example, suggested that the plan to put RFID in all tires (to track recycling) would make a great car-bombing assassin’s tool.  In the roadbed, plant your bomb with an RFID scanner and waits for the victim’s car to drive over, with unpleasant results. Doesn’t matter if they vary the route or travel with an entourage of security guards fore and aft.  Eventually, they’ll drive over it.   [Ed. Note: Gilmore is a co-founder of EFF, along with the above-quoted Barlow.]

“I came up with one even more disturbing. A semi-automatic rifle with an RFID scanner and directional yagi [Ed. Note: a form of antenna]. It beams out in a crowd and looks for tags matching those that a new law will mandate be incorporated in passports. Then it fires.  Now you have a gun that shoots only the American tourists -or whatever country you hate that day. (We’re sponsoring a law right now in California that will ban the implantation of RFIDs in California drivers’ licenses or other state issued ID.)

“But people will mail you lots of interesting applications and people will love them so they won’t, as some suggest, burn out the RFID tags in the things they buy after they leave the checkout. They’ll want to be able to find their wallets and glasses and car keys, many of which already have an RIFD in them.

“RFIDs present what I call the ‘bad science’ privacy problem. Scientists are trained hard that if you get a big enough sea of data and you go looking for something, you will often find it even when it isn’t really there.   The public, however, has poorer intuitions about this principle – indeed many scientists forget it from time to time – as we generate immense seas of data about our activities.  An Everett, Wash., fireman learned this the hard way when he got charged with first degree arson after they checked his Safeway club card records and saw he had purchased the same type of fire-starter cubes used to burn down his house. Later, the real culprit else confessed. The detectives thought they found a smoking gun.  Really, they just had enough data that they were likely to find something suspicious.

“RFIDs will square this problem.  There will be so much data on the movements of products and people wearing them that there will always be something to haunt you in it, real or imagined. I guess I don’t win.”

Actually, Vortician Templeton, we all win because smart people like you are worrying about this problem when most of us all are too glad to give up our privacy to shave a second or two off the purchase process or to get a free gewgaw from a vendor.

But aren’t there equally compelling arguments that this technology can make our lives safer and more secure? For example, active RFID tags can be used to improve security of container shipping – a huge hole in our homeland defense -by telling us, for example, that the container door has been opened or the environment within the container has changed chemically or in some other way.  There are other examples as well.

Like all technologies, RFID cuts both ways. My goal was to celebrate some of the innovative ways RFID will make life better. Vortician Templeton sagely reminds us to watch our behinds as well.

Vortician – and past VORTEX speaker – Peter Bernstein writes: “This reminds me of the early days of GPS and infrared ID, mostly used in secure military operations and for tracking inventory and personnel in hospitals – not a bad use for RFID, BTW. Here is a link on the history of GPS I thought you might like.  I include because it is likely that some unintended use will emerge as the big one for RFID (gaming and salacious content spring to mind) and it is always good to look at the past.

“I also included it because I seem to remember, and unfortunately can’t verify, that the [genesis of the] chipset from Rockwell that really made the commercial GPS system fly (pardon the pun) was that the CEO of Rockwell owned a huge cattle ranch in Montana.  As a means for tracking his herd from his house, he invented an inexpensive GPS receiver and hung it around the neck of the lead bull. [Ed. Can anyone verify?] 

“As a parent now exiting the teenage years of my children, one constant has been endless trips back to school to locate missing books, homework, cell phones, etc.  The killer app in the mass market may be something as simple as tagging all of the things kids tend to misplace. Let me amend that, since in my maturity my short-term memory seems to be on the fritz, to include forgetful adults as well.  My wife assures me this is actually a male thing akin to refrigeratoritis (looking directly at something in the fridge and announcing you can’t find it), but I believe this is universal.

Keep up the good work as always.  I am looking forward to see what everyone else comes up with.”

Thanks Peter and Brad. I’ll share some additional mail on this and other topics next week. For now, let me know what you think about the potential dangers of RFID and share your most innovative applications of the technology.

Bye for now.