Privacy Implications of Radio Frequency Identification Technology

   Before Mrs. Jones leaves work on a typical Tuesday, she goes to a familiar Web site where she can view the items left in her refrigerator to determine if she needs to stop by the grocery store.  She is completely out of milk and some other items, so she plans a trip to the store.  Double-checking to make sure her children arrived safely at home, she sees on the Web site that they both got off the bus on time and are in the living room, probably watching television instead of doing their homework.
    As she walks toward her car on the way home, a billboard greets her, “Good evening, Mrs. Jones!” and displays a pair of jeans she might be interested in – the same brand of jeans she bought a couple of months ago.  In her car, she drives through the parking garage exit without handing anyone money – the arm automatically lets her out.  At the store, she is greeted again with her name and the shopping cart she grabs tells her what she bought last time and what aisle each item is in.  Upon arriving home, her doors unlock automatically so she do not have to dig out her keys while she carries the grocery bags. 
    This scenario is made possible through radio frequency identification (RFID).  It may seem incredibly futuristic, but the truth is that the technology is closer than one would think.  RFID technology offers incredible possibilities for efficiency and convenience for both businesses and consumers, but also raises important privacy concerns.

Uses and Benefits of RFID
    RFID technology involves the electronic communication of information from a small chip that emits a radio frequency to a reader that interprets the information. [1] RFID technology is currently used in items such as clothing, home products, security cards, driver’s licenses, and tollway passes. [2] No human interaction with the products or data reader is necessary – the data reader either requests information from the RFID chip if the chip is passive (the more common implementation) or receives information if the RFID chip is active (such as car tags for tollways). [3]
    RFID is being implemented extensively by Wal-Mart. [4] Wal-Mart required its top one hundred suppliers to use RFID chips in their products by January 2005. [5]  Wal-Mart installed RFID readers on its shelves so when a product with an RFID chip is taken from the shelf, the stock room is notified that a replacement needs to leave the stock room and a new product needs to be ordered. [6] This has incredible benefits of more accurately supplying customers with desired products, as well as not requiring human interaction for scanning the shelves or manually calculating how many products are needed.[7]
    Road-toll management is also another current use of RFID.  [8]   Toll road systems can electronically identify the car and deduct the toll while allowing the cars to keep moving.  [9]  Identification cards allow electronic access to secured areas through RFID. [10]  Holding up the identification card to the reader opens the door, providing great convenience to the user   RFID tags are being tested to track students by putting tags in their backpacks. [11] The system being implemented in Charleston, South Carolina will track children as they enter and exit the buses.  [12]  The global positioning system on the bus will track where the bus is located on its route. [13]  Parents are able to check a Web site to see if their children are on the bus and if the bus is on time. [14]
    RFID technology offers significant benefits.  For retailers, it combines the security of magnetic tags used to prevent theft combined with the detailed product information available with barcodes in one technology. [15] RFID tags also allow writing of information, so businesses can write on the tag who purchased the product and when. [16]  Retailers can keep track of their products much closer, knowing exactly when a product has left the shelves and needs to be replaced. [17] This can save companies, both retailers and suppliers, an incredible amount every year.  [18]  Procter and Gamble reports that almost 16% of its products are out-of-stock, causing empty store shelves.  [19]  By reducing that number only 10 – 20%, it could save the company $400 million each year. [20]
    The convenience of opening doors or driving directly through toll booths is a great benefit of the technology as well.   Some parents greatly appreciate being able to determine when their young children have arrived at school and when to expect them home.[21] Other parents, however, have great concerns that the information about their children could become available to unscrupulous individuals.[22]  In Charleston, the American Civil Liberties Union has assisted those concerned parents in keeping the information about their children safe by stopping the implementation of RFID tracking technology. [23]

Privacy Implications of RFID Technology
    The most serious privacy and legal concerns are raised by publicly available technology that can “skim” – or steal – information from RFID tags.  [24] Skimming technology copies the information contained on the RFID tag quickly by reading and cloning the RFID signal. [25] This information can include identifying information and give the ‘skimmer’ access to secured areas or buildings.  [26]  California State Senator Joe Simitian sponsored a bill in the California Senate to outlaw skimming technology; the bill was passed in January 2008. [27]  Senator Simitian himself was a victim of skimming – a hacker skimmed Senator Simitian’s State Capitol access card and was able to walk into restricted areas.  [28]  Other types of identification, such as drivers’ licenses and student IDs often have RFID technology.  Frighteningly, the technology to skim the personal information from an RFID tag is “readily available, off-the-shelf, and surprisingly inexpensive.” [29]
    Retail items with RFID tags, such as clothing, electronics and other goods can provide those who purchase RFID readers or skimming technology with detailed information about a person’s spending habits and purchasing history. [30] When the tagged item is identified with a particular individual, the information about that product and the other products they have with them or in their home, depending on where the RFID reader is used, can give the reader a profile of the person.  [31] This might be helpful for customers who want targeted coupons or advertisements, but for many people this raises serious concerns about privacy.
    In 2005 American Express submitted a patent for a new RFID technology system made up of RFID tags and readers.  [32] The patent explained that objects with RFID tags would emit signals that identified the user and that when used in conjunction with RFID readers, people’s movements would be recorded and they would be sent video ads targeted directly toward them. [33]  RFID readers would be placed in public places such as “a common area of a school, shopping center, [or] bus station,” finding out personal information about many different people. [34]

Solving Privacy Problems
    For those concerned about privacy, there are forces at work to address the privacy implications of RFID technology.  At least two legislative bodies, the California Senate and Washington House of Representatives, have passed bills that make it illegal to skim RFID–enabled cards. [35]  On the technological front, software that deactivates RFID tags once the items with the tag is purchased is being developed.  [36] This technology will, through the use of lights, indicate when the item’s RFID tag has been deactivated. [37]
    Also preventing the great outcry against RFID technology is that RFID is not widely used yet.  Businesses wanting to use RFID tags would have to make incredible investments in new hardware to read RFID tags on shelves and at checkout counters, software to understand the RFID tags, the RFID tags themselves, training for employees and new security systems.  Most companies do not have the capital for such a venture. [38] RFID tag technology itself needs to improve before it can have wide-spread use. [39] RFID readers are not always accurate, and the RFID tags are hard to manufacture very small for the products that require small tags. [40] Additionally, the technology to disable the RFID tags needs to be implemented to address the privacy concerns that consumers have. [41] 
    As RFID technology gets less and less expensive, more businesses will begin investing in RFID tags.  From 1999 to 2003, the cost of RFID tags decreased by fifty percent – from $1.00 to $.50 per tag – with price drops predicted to continue. [42] Once RFID tags become more affordable to smaller businesses, they will become more widely used and consumers need to be aware of what RFID technology is and how it affects them.  Even though it would be great to have stores and billboards give customers  a personal greeting because they can read the RFID tag on our drivers’ licenses, it also means that all sorts of companies are gathering personal movements and creating a profile about the consumers.  There is no need to begin a great panic about “big brother” monitoring our every movement, but consumers do need to be aware of RFID technology and what it means for their lives.  Although RFID might bring great convenience by allowing parents to see where their children are and permitting drivers to pass through toll booths at a normal speed, at what price does this convenience come?  Only the future will reveal how retailers, the government, police, investigators, lawyers and marketers will use our private information.

[1] Alan D. Smith, Exploring Radio Frequency Identification Technology and its Impact on Business Systems, 13 INFORMATION MANAGEMENT AND COMPUTER SECURITY 16, 17 (2008).

[2] Alan D. Smith, supra note 1, at 20-21.

[3] Todd Lewan, Chipping Away at Privacy: Devices Track Spending, Personal Moves, ALBANY TIMES UNION, Jan. 27, 2008, at A7.

[4] Alan D. Smith, supra note 1, at 17.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id. at 21 – 22.

[9] Id.

[10] California Senate Approves Bill to Outlaw Skimming RFID Tags, COMMWEB NEWS, Jan. 31, 2008.

[11] Michelle R. Smith, Plan for Student-Tracking Chips Criticized, CHARLESTON DAILY MAIL, Jan. 8, 2008, at 12A.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Alan D. Smith, supra note 1, at 18.

[16] Id. at 18.

[17] Id. at 18-19.

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

[21] Michelle R. Smith, supra note 11.

[22] Id.


[23] Id.

[24] California Senate, supra note 6, at 1.

[25] Id.

[26] Id.

[27] Id.

[28] Id.

[29] Id.

[30] Lewan, supra note 3.

[31] Id.

[32] Id.

[33] Id.

[34] Id.

[35] Washington State Reps. Pass Ban on RFID Skimming, COMMWEB NEWS, Feb. 15, 2008.

[36] Illinois, Rhode Island Inventors Develop Visual Identification Tag Deactivation, US FEDERAL NEWS, Feb. 11, 2008.

[37] Id.

[38] Alan D. Smith, supra note 1, at 22 – 23.

[39] Id.

[40] Id.

[41] Id.

[42] Id. at 18.

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