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RFID: A Question Of Balance

Advocates of the technology touted its benefits before a California Senate subcommittee, but noted that they must be balanced with standards that protect privacy.
For the second time in a week, privacy took center stage in a discussion of radio-frequency identification technology--and once again, the companies with the biggest plans for RFID chose to remain silent on the issue. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Procter & Gamble, both of which have revealed aggressive timelines for rolling out RFID, declined invitations to speak Thursday at a hearing on RFID and privacy before the California Senate's subcommittee on new technologies, less than a week after the companies were no-shows at a workshop on the topic at MIT.

In their absence, the potential benefits of RFID were outlined by Jack Grasso, a spokesman for EPCglobal Inc., the standards body spearheading development of uniform RFID technologies, and Kristin Power, director of state affairs for the trade group Grocery Manufacturers of America. Grasso offered a laundry list of supply-chain benefits from RFID, including improved availability of products, shorter check-out times, and more-effective product recalls. Power said the promise of such benefits is expected to accelerate the adoption of RFID on a wider scale.

But Grasso also noted that to become an EPCglobal member and gain access to standard RFID technologies, companies will have to conform to usage guidelines the group is developing that place a premium on consumer privacy.

Some of the confusion about how far those planning to sell and use RFID must go to protect privacy stems from a lack of a legal framework. State Sen. Debra Bowen, who chairs the subcommittee, said that while there are laws governing existing mechanisms and data types, RFID may not be beholden to any current legislation.

That, says Lee Tien, senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, is why the privacy discussion around RFID is so important. Tien suggested to the subcommittee that privacy protection features should be built into RFID tools before they're commercialized. "Privacy-invasive technologies like RFID need to be looked at early in their development rather than late," he said. Tien is working with public library systems to ensure that they have privacy in mind in their RFID decisions. He was critical of the San Francisco Public Library Commission's decision to fund an RFID-tracking system for library books in its 2004-05 budget without having a public debate about privacy. Jackie Griffin, director of the Berkeley Public Library, told the subcommittee that Berkeley--which sees RFID as a tool for reducing worker's-compensation expenses related to repetitive-motion injuries--has decided that it will limit its vendor selection to those companies that can deliver RFID chips that provide only bar-code information and leave off specifics such as book titles.

Bowen said some consumer safeguards will be inherent in the way in which the market receives RFID once it moves beyond the back-office supply chain. Companies deploying RFID, the state senator said, would be well-advised to do so in a way that respects consumer privacy. "If it's not acceptable to the majority of citizens, and it doesn't work on a social or legal level," she said, "then you've wasted a lot of investment."