IT Confidential: RFID: Europeans Want Privacy, Americans Want Results - InformationWeek
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John Soat
John Soat

IT Confidential: RFID: Europeans Want Privacy, Americans Want Results

What would Jesse James do? Europeans express their reservations about business being able to safeguard privacy when it comes to implementing RFID, but American companies want to move ahead aggressively.

When it comes to technology, policy, and privacy, Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus. At least that's the impression I got from a few developments last week.

Viviane Reding, the European commissioner for information society and media, held a press conference in Brussels to announce the results of an online poll conducted over the last six months seeking input from Europeans on the use of radio frequency identification technology. According to Reding, 2,190 individuals and groups responded to the poll, and the overriding message was this: Privacy first. Reding said only 15% of respondents thought industry efforts to regulate RFID would be adequate to safeguard privacy ("EU Seeks Tougher RFID Privacy Rules," Oct. 17, 2006). "The large majority [of Europeans] are willing to be convinced that RFID can bring benefits, but they want to be reassured that it will not compromise their privacy," Reding said in her speech. "This is the deal we have to strike if we want RFID to be accepted and widely taken up. This is the deal I am willing to make." Reding is preparing draft regulations related to RFID and privacy, which she will propose to the European Commission in December.

I couldn't help but notice that the same week Europeans were expressing their collective misgivings about RFID, a conference in Los Angeles devoted to the technology attracted an enthusiastic audience of vendors and potential users ("RFID Show Draws A Crowd," Oct. 17, 2006). The EPCglobal Conference featured such big-name vendors as Hewlett-Packard, Intel, and Oracle, as well as more narrowly focused vendors such as Alien Technology, Intermec Technologies, and Symbol Technologies. EPCglobal is a nonprofit organization that promotes the adoption of the Electronic Product Code, a key component of RFID-based supply chains.

If anything, there's a sense of frustration among companies in the United States anxious to implement RFID. "The more companies, industries, and trading partners that use this technology, the greater the collective benefits for every company investing in this effort," said Carolyn Walton, VP of IS at Wal-Mart, in her keynote speech. "We have the means to create a safer and more secure supply chain. And most important of all, we can do a better job of taking care of our customers."

I'm not suggesting Americans don't value privacy or that we're not concerned about the implications of RFID. There are several bills regarding data and Internet privacy floating through Congress (see story, p. 53), though none apparently very close to being passed. Legislation related to RFID in particular has been proposed mostly on the state level, and several states have come to the same conclusion: Let's wait until RFID is more widely deployed before rushing to legislate its impact.

America's attitude about technology mirrors its revered, internalized Wild West mentality: Shoot first and ask questions later. Wait--sorry, Vice President Cheney, I wasn't talking about you.

NOTE: It was reported last week that Reuters was assigning a writer to assume a virtual character in the online society known as Second Life and report on developments in that virtual world. The writer, Adam Pasick, is based in London. I've requested a similar assignment change and will soon become a virtual character in the violent video game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. If you know how to clean a Glock nine, or have an industry tip, contact my physical self at or call 516-562-5326.

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