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6/16/2004
05:25 PM

Privacy Concerns Around RFID Continue To Generate Debate

Legislation may wind up addressing some concerns, but it shouldn't stifle RFID's potential.



The issue of whether radio-frequency identification technology can potentially be used to infringe on privacy just won't go away. It reared its head again at an RFID forum this week hosted by the Information Technology Association of America.

"When Wal-Mart and the Department of Defense announced their RFID intentions, it changed the whole dynamic of the marketplace," Harris Miller, president of the ITAA, said during a break at the forum, held Tuesday at the J.W. Marriott in the District's downtown. "Even though we are still in the early days, we want to get out in front. People are so sensitive to privacy."

Wal-Mart Stores, Target, Albertsons, the Department of Defense, and several European retailers have been aggressively pushing RFID, mandating that their suppliers use the technology within the next year. But RFID's use has some privacy advocates concerned that as the technology matures and becomes more pervasive, it could be used to collect scads of data on unknowing consumers.

One way concerns are being mitigated is through legislation, and as many as seven states have either introduced or considered RFID bills, including California. Massachusetts state Sen. Jarrett Barrios, who spoke this week at ITAAs forum, is drafting new legislation to regulate the use of radio frequency identification technology in the New England state.

But Barrios and others at the ITAA forum said it's important that legislation not stifle RFID's potential. For example, Barrios doesn't agree with legislation that requires RFID tags have "kill" or deactivation mechanisms. If deactivated, an RFID tag would be useless to help keep toxic materials, for example, from being dumped into landfills. Also, RFID is still an evolving technology, he said, so any laws that may go on the books today may not be applicable tomorrow.

"We have to address the privacy issues now," said Elliot Maxwell, Fellow at the Center for the Study of American Government at Johns Hopkins University. But, "people must recognize these guidelines are [revision] one, and as the technology changes and evolves, the guidelines should too."

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