Overblown RFID Privacy Fears Still Merit Attention

Opinion: Bogus reports on RFID privacy problems are coming back louder than ever. But Evan Schuman argues that the only thing worse than believing those reports would be to ignore them.

As RFID stories start appearing in the consumer media and on the television network news shows, were starting to hear the same death and despair stories that were all the rage when the consumer media first discovered the Web.

My personal favorites were the early stories of shock when a reporter found out that government computers had pornographic images on them. That sounded pretty bad, until you realized that it was simply an Internet server that has Usenet newsgroups on it.

In other words, it had literally millions of pages from all over the world on it. Thats like saying your childs school computer has recruitment ads for al-Qaida on it because it offers Web access.

Then there were those stories about how the Web should be banned or restricted because it puts our children at risk. When obscene phone calls were a common threat, I dont recall cries to restrict or ban telephone access. People also can mail death threats, so lets ban or restrict mail and FedEx access.

The silliest of those stories stopped appearing right about the time that consumer reporters started truly spending time on the Web and understanding what it was.

The next time you read or hear one of those "RFID is a 1984 Big Brother privacy threat" stories, remember what those same media organizations were reporting about the Web circa 1995 and 1996.

/zimages/6/28571.gifWhen does CRM information mean that retailers must act to prevent harm? Click here to read how Kroger learned about the issue.

Two major networks last week reported fears that consumers carrying products with RFID tags could be tracked for miles, from merchant to merchant, seeing where they drove and exactly where the goods went in their house.

Personally, Im not losing too much sleep over that, given the fact that most retailers today can barely get an accurate, consistent RFID readout when the tag is 2 inches from the reader. True, the technologys accuracy should improve over the next couple of years and, in fairness, no one is honestly predicting widespread, item-level tagging before 2009 or so.

But how many inches from the readers will RFID be able to scan? And why would any retailer flood a community with thousands of RFID readers all over town, like so many cell towers? (Dont get me started on how difficult it can be to send and receive consistently strong cell phone signals walking around Manhattan. And if Manhattan isnt cell-saturated, what are the chances that Dubuque, Iowa, will be? Or for that matter, Sunnyvale, Calif.? But I digress, which I usually do.)

Remember that RFID tags are not like the receivers for GPS (Global Positioning System) units. GPS uses a couple of dozen medium-Earth Orbit communications satellites orbiting thousands of miles above the earth.

By triangulating signals from three of those satellites—and adding that info to data from the wheels and other input—it can allegedly track anything on the planet within 20 meters. Weather, mountains, hills and other factors can interfere with GPS, and military systems reportedly can be much more precise.

/zimages/6/28571.gifPrivacy concerns surround pharmacies work with CRM. Click here to read about what happened to Albertsons.

No, thats not what RFID is. RFID needs to be scanned by a reader in fairly close proximity. But even assuming some retailer wanted to track where consumers went with various just-purchased products, and that somehow the retailer invested a few extra billion dollars in making its entire coverage area readable, why collect that kind of information?

One of the big problems with CRM systems today is that retailers have neither the staffs nor the inclinations to use one-tenth of the information they are already collecting. Why gather intrusive information that has no immediate benefit to the business when youll never get around to using it anyway? Whos got that kind of time?

Next Page:But there are legitimate privacy concerns.