• United States

RFID: Revolutionary tool or Big Brother?

Oct 06, 20032 mins
Cellular NetworksNetwork SecurityRFID

* Privacy issues surround wireless tracking devices

Since the dawn of time (or at least since the U.S. came into being and had a constitution to protect), society has been weighing the benefits of automation and technology against the civil liberties of individuals.  One of the latest controversies in the electronic age surrounds radio frequency identification technology.

Emerging in teeny-weeny form factors that you can embed, unnoticed, in places, products and even living beings, RFID systems consist of an antenna, a transceiver and a transponder (also called an “RF tag”) that is electronically programmed with unique information. These systems enable the tracking of items and can also trigger actions over radio waves without the line-of-sight requirements of RFID’s main competitor, bar code scanners.

For example, a “smart shelf” in a store should be able to determine if the shelf is empty and automatically reorder products, presumably simplifying inventory control.  And my brother-in-law works for a company called Digital Angel, whose main product is location and tracking tags for pets and livestock (or, as I call it, “Lojack for animals”).

Now that we’re talking about living beings, you see where the controversy comes in. Still, livestock constitutes some companies’ “inventory.” And if you had a lost or stolen pet or child, wouldn’t you want to be able to find them?

RFID opponents, of course, worry that the technology will become an Orwellian path to keeping tabs on people who buy products with the little buggers implanted in them.

The question is whether the ends (better inventory management, finding kids and pets, heck – finding your reading glasses or the remote control) justify the means. That’s for far greater minds than mine. But if RFID is deployed without privacy policies applied (think “telemarketing” and “personal safety”), like many other technologies, RFID could backfire.