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Sen. Leahy Calls On Congress To Study RFID

The Vermont Democrat says a dialogue is needed now to make sure that innovation is encouraged while the public's privacy rights are protected.

Yet another lawmaker is raising concerns about the impact of radio-frequency identification technology on consumers' privacy. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., is calling on Congress to begin studying RFID technology.

In addressing attendees at a conference on video surveillance and other technologies at Georgetown University's law school in Washington this week, Leahy said Congress may need to hold hearings on RFID technology. He said that the time is now to begin a national dialogue on RFID before a "potentially good approach is hampered because of lack of communication with Congress, the public, and lack of adequate consideration for privacy and civil liberties," according to a transcript of his speech at the conference. "We need clear communication about the goals, plans, and uses of the technology, so that we can think in advance about the best ways to encourage innovation, while conserving the public's right to privacy."

RFID is a fast-growing technology, sparked by mandates from Albertsons, the Department of Defense, Target, Wal-Mart, and several European retailers that will require suppliers to begin using RFID in the next year. According to some research firms, the market for RFID hardware, software, and integration services could top $7 billion within five years.

For now, the RFID mandates are confined to using the technology in warehouse and distribution processes to track pallets and cases--not individual items on store shelves. But privacy advocates say they're worried that will change and that the technology will be used to gather and store all types of personal data on individuals and their activities.

In his speech to conference attendees, Leahy acknowledged the concerns. "While it may be a good idea for a retailer to use RFID chips to manage its inventory, we would not want a retailer to put those tags on goods for sale without consumers' knowledge, without knowing how to deactivate them, and without knowing what information will be collected and how it will be used," he said.

Leahy isn't the first lawmaker to spotlight RFID. California state Sen. Debra Bowen has introduced legislation to regulate the use of RFID technology. That bill outlines three requirements for any business using an RFID system that can track products and people. The business must tell customers it's using an RFID system and get express consent before tracking and collecting any information. The bill also says companies must detach or destroy any RFID tags that are attached to a product offered for sale before the customer leaves a store.

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