RFID Tags and Privacy

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Radio frequency identification (RFID) technology promises many consumer benefits.  With RFID, goods on trucks, in trains, and in warehouses can be inventoried without unloading and digging through pallets and packaging. Embedded in or attached to consumer products, RFID can improve customer convenience by permitting receipt-free returns and suppressing post-sale theft.  As a personal identification device, RFID already enables keycard holders to quickly enter secure buildings and pass through toll gates.

But, as new communications and information storage technologies often do, RFID has also raised a variety of privacy concerns. Responding to the call of activist groups, state legislators have begun pushing legislation, and the Federal Trade Commission has instituted hearings to consider whether this nascent technology should be regulated.

As yet, RFID tags have seen limited deployments, so there is little real-world experience on which to ground discussions of the merits or demerits of regulation. As RFID technology comes into full use, various social forces will constrain it more suitably than would government regulation.  RFID users face economic incentives and consumer preferences that will direct the technology’s evolution in harmony with consumer interests.  Meanwhile, consumers’ easy access to defensive techniques and counter-technologies will compliment existing laws that already protect privacy.

An unlikely threat to privacy, RFID technology will help producers, marketers, and retailers take major steps toward better understanding—and therefore better serving—the entire mix of consumer interests.  Legislation to restrict the technology would be premature given the social forces that will shepherd RFID’s comfortable assimilation into commercial and consumer society.  Prompt deployment of, and experimentation with, RFID would best serve the interests of the public and the economy.