Monday Comment

The Age of Consent for RFID

Related tags Rfid

The image of secret radio chips planted inside the home from larder
to bathroom, transmitting data freely to Corporation Inc, is enough
to curl the toes of more than anti-capitalism activists.

Companies may argue that the data is as scintillating as a bar code and only as revealing.

But the potential of RFID (radio frequency identification) tags to put transmitters into consumers' lives has to be treated with more sensitivity than a brush-off.

Consumers and workers are wary. And the technology has the potential for uses that would exactly play to their privacy fears.

This makes for exceedingly careful handling: a lesson that should have been learnt already, but apparently has not been.

Two years ago, the UK's largest food retailer, Tesco, paraded its latest RFID breakthrough in the form of "smart shelves" that delivered touch-triggered photos of consumers picking up Gillette razor blades. It was an innovation that triggered public outrage and led to a retreat from RFID that was effectively an abandonment inside the store.

RFID continued within the supply-chain, neatly beyond the eyes of consumers. There, it quietly, but rapidly gathered momentum as a producer-to-warehouse management tool, saving wastage, losses and lots of time.

Until some smart Alec started linking the warehouse workers into the system too.

This month, the GMB labour union, one of the biggest in British manufacturing, threatened strike action unless companies curbed the RFID tracking of warehouse workers.

It's a threat that has the look of the tip of an iceberg.

In a study​ this year on employee RFID access cards, think-tank RAND Corporation found data from RFID access cards being used systematically for other purposes. Of six RFID access systems run by corporate security departments, all were additionally passing data to the human resources departments, and one to the medical department, and yet only one had informed employees of this data use - data use, said Rand, that "trumped privacy concerns"​.


Business, it seems, will have only itself to blame if it ends up in a bunfight over the right to use RFID.

In Europe, the EU's justice and home affairs department was finally moved, earlier this year, to issue a guidance document reminding all that the data protection directive places companies under very restrictive obligations when using RFID. Companies must notify consumers - and workers - when tags are present, what information is being collected and for what purpose.

The directive also gives consumers the right to disable product tags, and to amend any collected information.

In the US, where the Federal Trade Commission reported in March that two-thirds of consumers familiar with RFID ranked privacy as their top fear about the technology, legislators are moving onto a different track.

Last month, California's Senate approved the first US legislation to ban state and local government agencies from issuing ID cards containing RFID tags.

With more than 30 activist groups in Europe now targeting RFID as a threat, and many more in the US, this is likely to be far from the first legislative move against RFID use.

Which is, no doubt, why RFID trade association AIM Global has pitched in with such vigour in its calls for RFID users to educate everywhere on "the technology and its limitations"​.

However, the technology's limits are not the point. RFID may have limited capacity and deal with mundane data, but it is also a technology of which the public is deeply suspicious.

Even bar codes and office arrival times can be sensitive if they are being used with a view to penalising someone.

Business stands to gain a great deal from this tool. But to do so it needs to move away from arguing over data and technological limits, and instead concentrate on winning consumer and employee trust.

For without consent, RFID may not be spyware, but it sure feels like it.

Ahmed ElAmin is a business writer of 20 years' standing, having specialized in development issues, technology, international business and offshore finance, before joining Novis as the Editor of

If you would like to comment on this article please e-mail nuzrq.rynzva@abivftebhc.pbz​.

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