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California Senate OKs Bill To Limit RFID Use

The bill would limit use of the technology in stores and libraries, but it faces much tougher sledding in the state Assembly.

California's state Senate gave its stamp of approval Thursday to a bill that would place limits on the use of radio-frequency identification technology in stores and libraries. However, the bill faces what's expected to be more-heated debate before the state Assembly's Business and Professions Committee.

SB 1834, introduced by state Sen. Debra Bowen, seeks to prevent stores and libraries from using RFID to collect any information beyond what a customer is buying, renting, or borrowing. If passed, the bill would ban use of the technology to track people while they're shopping--such as detecting what products they pick up but don't buy--or after they've left an establishment. A similar piece of legislation is being drafted by Massachusetts state Sen. Jarret Barrios.

A spokeswoman for Bowen said getting the bill through the Senate--which approved it in a 22-8 vote--was relatively easy because the senators as a group don't have a thorough grasp of the technology. Conversely, the Assembly committee tends to be more tech-savvy and business friendly--and thus is less likely to want to place limitations on a technology that's in its infancy. Further complicating the bill's future, the spokeswoman said, is the reluctance of business leaders to testify before state legislators because they also believe it's too early in RFID's history to engage in a privacy debate.

Bowen said in a statement that waiting for RFID to mature before taking action to protect consumer privacy would be a mistake. "There's no reason to let RFID sneak up on us when we have the ability to put some privacy protection in place before the genie's completely out of the bottle," she said.

That could be sooner rather than later, with mandates from the likes of Albertsons, the Defense Department, Target, and Wal-Mart that suppliers begin using the technology to track goods in the supply chain next year. RFID involves embedding goods with tiny microprocessors that can broadcast signals to mounted or handheld readers, creating access to data that's expected to improve supply-chain visibility and inventory management.

Bowen's spokeswoman said the senator isn't lobbying against RFID, and in fact is bullish on its business value. But when it comes to potential privacy invasions, Bowen has never been one to wait and see, and her office has been getting a lot of feedback from voters concerned about the future implications of a technology they're only beginning to understand. Bowen was an instrumental voice in California's legislative debate about spam, which ended with the approval of what was briefly the country's most all-encompassing anti-spam law before the federal Can-Spam Act trumped it.

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