Business Technology: RFID Friends And Foes Share Their Views

What's needed is a clear understanding of the pros and cons of technologies like RFID, Bob Evans says. That will require more research, more bold initiatives, more clear thinking about privacy, and less hysteria.

So this week, a few more perspectives on RFID: some humorously helpful, some zany, some breathtakingly simple, some profound, and all designed to help you figure out how this powerful but largely misunderstood technology can help you and your organization do things better, smarter, and faster.

First up: the zany. Now, while I've made my feelings quite clear on both the potential business value of RFID (huge) and the silliness of the arguments of its harshest critics (even huger), I've also in the past stated very clearly that I understand and endorse the idea that privacy is sacrosanct and that RFID, like all technologies, could pose a certain risk to privacy if used unwisely or maliciously. And while some of the publicity-craving privacy busybodies are certainly not my cup of tea, I do recognize that some folks think their fear-mongering serves a useful purpose. But there does exist a border between rational thought--even in its extreme forms--and hallucination, and here's an excerpt from a letter I received last week that jumps so far over that line that even the nannies at the EFF and ACLU might find it a bit overwrought:

"What would happen if most corporations had the technology and power to produce and deploy nuclear warheads without the right measures and instruments of law in place!" this agitated writer said. "That is exactly what we are doing here by jumping straight into the RFID technology. In essence, the private sector is stamping the number of the beast on every human being's forehead!"

Meanwhile, back on Planet Earth, IBM is emerging as one of the most forceful proponents of RFID technologies and applications, despite the fact that the company itself doesn't manufacture or sell any RFID stuff. IBM Researchers Paul Moskowitz and Guenter Karjoth this week are for the first time publicly discussing their work on some remarkably simple approaches to RFID-related privacy by giving consumers the ability to turn off RFID tags. As shown in the graphic, one of their proposed solutions involves using the edge of a coin to scratch away the connection on the tag between the actual RFID chip and its antenna--no connection, no transmission of information, no chance of privacy abuse.

Clipped RFID Tags

Image courtesy of IBM
(click image for larger view)

In an interview last week, Moskowitz--holder of 24 RFID-related patents and 63 overall--said that if RFID technologies continue to be adopted within major retail supply chains, it's possible that within a few years, billions of cases will carry RFID tags. In addition, many individual products--including such bulky items as stereos, plasma TVs, and printers--could also be carrying RFID tags.

"And the big question for the consumer is, how does that consumer know that it's really turned off?" Moskowitz asked. "Because the burden should not be on the consumer--so how do we do that?" Another disabling device that Moskowitz and Karjoth are exploring involves a perforation, "like a slit in the edge of a ketchup packet," Moskowitz said.

Very simple, very elegant, very effective. And it makes great sense for IBM and its customers because while IBM doesn't sell RFID-specific products, its Global Services subsidiary is doing a considerable amount of business in supply-chain consulting, and it has recently launched a Sensors and Actuators business unit that could incorporate RFID and other technologies on the road to pervasive intelligent networks. So IBM applies its research brainpower to attack one of the major choke-points toward broad RFID adoption: figuring out ways to alleviate "advocate"-driven fears over RFID and privacy. Why don't more companies with even a small vested interest in RFID pursue this type of approach?

By contrast, our letter-writer above advocates that everything be put on hold until we can solicit the deep involvement of the same people who brought us the 6 billion-page U.S. tax code: "Congress needs to enact laws," the letter says, "that can focus on RFID not compromising personal information, the way health care has the HIPAA laws and regulations to assure the privateness of the individual." As you consider those alternatives, bear in mind that Wal-Mart CIO Linda Dillman says RFID tags right here and right now have raised her company's revenue by lowering out-of-stock situations on tagged items by 16%.

And Moskowitz's "clipped chip" research is but one of many projects within IBM Research to investigate "privacy-enabling" devices, according to IBM chief privacy officer Harriet Pearson. As RFID technology moves more deeply into consumer-touching applications, Pearson said, there will be "very real needs and obligations" for not just technology companies but also retailers and consumer packaged-goods companies and others to educate and reassure the public. "So if we can help with inventions to put the power for on/off control in the hands of consumers, then we think that's a good thing," Pearson said.

In my opinion, a whole lot of that education and reassurance is being achieved via IBM's humorous TV ad in which an 18-wheeler barreling through a desert has to come to a screeching halt because there's a woman sitting at a help desk in the middle of the road. And the conversation goes like this (you can view the video here):

Trucker 1: Would you kindly tell me what you're doing in the road?

IBM Helper: I'm with the Help Desk. You're lost. You're headed to Fresno.

Trucker 1: Fresno, right.

IBM Helper: This is the road to Albuquerque.

Trucker 1: How'd you know we were lost?

IBM Helper: The boxes told me.

Trucker 1: The boxes?

IBM Helper: RFID. Radio tags on the cargo. Helps track shipments.

Trucker 1: (to trucker No. 2, all under end titles) The boxes knew we were lost.

Trucker 2: Maybe the boxes should drive.

Trucker 1: Very funny.

IBM ad
IBM ad
IBM ad
IBM ad

Indeed, maybe the boxes should drive--in the IT-saturated world that's rushing rapidly toward us, we're going to be hearing lots more ideas like that. And as we do, we'll need to have a clear understanding of the pros and cons of technologies like RFID, and that will require more research, more bold initiatives, more clear thinking about privacy, and less hysteria.

Nice work, IBM.

Other Voices

About a year ago, we published a four-part, first-person series from a CIO sharing his experiences in evaluating and implementing a major RFID project, and the lessons are every bit as valuable today. Here's the outline, and we hope you find it useful: This is the fourth in a series of RFID perspectives from Larry Shutzberg, vice president and chief information officer at Rock-Tenn Co., a leading manufacturer of consumer packaging, promotional displays, and recycled paperboard. In Part One, Shutzberg urged readers to not miss the innovation opportunity that RFID presents. In Part Two he detailed the costs and potential costs of RFID. In Part Three he provided an overview of key RFID technologies. In Part Four, Shutzberg issued a warning on the reliability/stability limitations with RFID technology.

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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