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Bob Evans
Bob Evans

RFID Needs Insight, Not Scare Tactics

Is RFID a powerful new technology that can help spark business innovation, or is it an intrusive high-tech vermin that should be obliterated, Bob Evans asks.

And while I did make light of the silly Cnet claim at the top of this column regarding the role that businesses and managers like you play in RFID deployments and how those are perceived by customers, we take the overall subject of RFID security and privacy very seriously, and will explore those complexities regularly in the newsletter and on the site. For example, my InformationWeek colleague Tom Claburn, who's covered privacy issues extensively for us, shared with me some of his thoughts regarding RFID and privacy. The key issue, in Tom's view, is understanding the intimate interplay between what consumers regard as privacy and companies regard as data security:


"In brief, legislators here are trying to extrapolate an embryonic, year-2004 technology into year-2010-and-beyond legislation. Given the difficulty that technologists have making predictions in their own areas of expertise, why should legislators assume better prowess on their own part?"

-- Excerpt from an E-mail message sent in reply earlier this year to InformationWeek's Tom Claburn from Ari Juels of RSA Security. The Wall Street Journal

"The difficulty I see with the way businesses are approaching the RFID debate is that they don't see consumer concerns as anything more than a public-relations issue. I was just speaking with Amar Singh, VP of applications solutions management and global RFID at SAP, and he observed that privacy tends to be a consumer term, whereas for businesses the issue was data security. I think he's right about that, and therein lies the problem: It's all about data. And businesses need to recognize that data concerns everyone to whom it pertains. Where companies get into trouble is when they treat data like it's their property, without recognizing there are wider concerns. My desire not to be included in a particular marketing database should carry equal weight to a celebrity's or CEO's desire not to have the GPS coordinates of his or her children posted on a Web site. We should all have the right to be left alone." You can find the full text of Tom's comments here, and please feel free to contact Tom Claburn directly.

Now, I suspect that Tom's views will resonate deeply with many people who may feel that companies already know too much about them, and will keep intruding until they are forced to stop; or that various governmental agencies, already armed with Social Security numbers and the Patriot Act and other powers and aspirations, will abuse whatever technologies are at their disposal. And many people will favor legislation and regulation of these technologies--for example, the group Caspian, or Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering.

It's my hope that we will avoid the introduction of such legislative and regulatory measures because companies will realize that to act in their own best self-interest, they must take into full account the delicate balance with their customers to which Tom alludes above. And maybe someone can weave an elegant thread connecting Tom's lucid concerns with those of the Cnet writer, Michael Kannelos--but I doubt it. That's because the vast separation between the two pieces begins with a common approach: that all people have fundamental desires. But the difference is that my colleague believes that the fundamental desire people have is to be left alone, whereas Cnet's Kannelos believes that the fundamental desire people have (or that at least all businesspeople have) is to exploit others in demeaning and deceitful ways just to make more money (of which, he also believes, these businesspeople have way too much).

So this RFID thing: What's it gonna be? Is it a powerful and potentially wonderful new technology that can help spark business innovation and success? Or is it an insidious and intrusive high-tech vermin that should be obliterated? What do you think?

For myself, I think it falls squarely into the former category. But I also admit that in the wrong hands and under the wrong motivations, it can play a part in insidious and intrusive activities. But that's not RFID's fault; that's the fault, as ever, of the truly intelligent agent: the human being.

To discuss this column with other readers, please visit Bob Evans's forum on the Listening Post.

To find out more about Bob Evans, please visit his page on the Listening Post.

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