RFID Journal Editor Mark Roberti's Blog

A Privacy Expert’s Misguided View of RFID

August 11, 2010

Some recent blogs about Wal-Mart Store’s use of RFID have indicated there is no threat to consumer privacy (see Wal-Mart's Privacy Invasion—Not! and Global CIO: Wal-Mart Reignites RFID Hysteria, for example). 

So when I came across a blog titled Wal-Mart's RFID Tags: A Privacy Expert's View, I clicked on it to see if this “expert” was also helping to counteract the many expected hysterical posts. Alas, I was disappointed. The blog by Barry Silverstein on BrandChannel quotes Richard Raysman, privacy and IP attorney for law firm Holland & Knight in New York, as saying, RFID tags initially applied to inventory control “could become ‘a legitimate privacy concern’ when they become commonly used.” 

I don’t know Silverstein or Raysman, so it’s possible that Raysman is being misquoted. I hope so, because his comments are insipid, and he is obviously ignorant about RFID. 

First, let me explain why his views are insipid. To say that the widespread use of RFID could become a legitimate privacy concern really says nothing. If I post a blog saying, “Within five years, beings from a far-off planet could invade Earth and kill everyone with ray guns,” I would have contributed exactly nothing to readers’ knowledge of the threat they face to their life and liberty. 

The question is: What are the chances that RFID will become a privacy threat, and why do you believe that? And when you look at what Raysman is quoted as saying on that topic, he dredges up old issues that hold no water. 

Silverstein, the blogger, writes that Raysman fears RFID technology “can ultimately be used to track customers' purchases via shopper loyalty/rewards programs.” He quotes Raysman as saying: "This tracking could raise serious privacy concerns since many purchases are very private to the consumer. For example, prescription medicines can reveal the existence of certain embarrassing diseases—this is the type of information that is considered highly private under the HIPAA laws." 

I’m not sure if Raysman is aware, but retailers already track what you buy using bar codes on items linked to loyalty cards. Moreover, I can see no benefit to linking an individual serial number in an item to a specific customer. A retailer gets no value from knowing Mark Roberti bought the blue polo shirt, size medium, with the serial number 1234567. What the retailer wants to know is that Mark Roberti likes blue polo shirts, so it can sell me another one. And, as I said, it already knows this. 

There are downsides to linking personally identifiable information to a specific item someone bought. A retailer could be brought into a court case to prove that a specific item was sold to a specific person. In an ugly divorce, for instance, a retailer might be subpoenaed to prove that a cheating husband bought a specific article of lingerie found in his girlfriend’s apartment. Another downside is the appearance of spying on customers with RFID, which would lead to bad press and a loss of customers. 

So in my view, while RFID could be abused, it’s unlikely that it will be by most legitimate retailers. And abuses by individuals, such as trying to stalk someone by tracking them with RFID (also not likely in my view), can be dealt with via legislation. 

Raysman is also quoted as saying the same technology that is used to track Alzheimer’s patients, which he agrees is reasonable, could be used to track nurses in hospitals and determine when they are not doing their jobs. This is a bigger concern in my view, but it will be dealt with the way other technologies are handled in the workplace. For instance, employers in the United States have a legal right to read their workers’ e-mail and track the Web sites they visit. People either get used to that kind of oversight or they leave. In some cases, unions will negotiate to prevent workers from being tracked with RFID. 

I think it is helpful when people raise legitimate issues about RFID, so technology providers and users can address those issues. For instance, many people raised concerns that tags could be read after they left the store, so someone might know they bought Viagra, for instance. I think it’s unlikely that people will sit in the parking lot in an attempt to learn who has erectile dysfunction, but the industry addressed that concern with tags that have strong privacy features, such as the ability to hide the Electronic Product Code number and reduce the read range. 

There might still be issues that need to be address. However, we need to have a serious debate about what’s likely to happen, rather than what could happen. Because after all, anything could happen. 

Mark Roberti is the founder and editor of RFID Journal. If you would like to comment on this article, click on the link below. To read more of Mark's opinions, visit the RFID Journal Blog or click here. 

POST A COMMENT

  • COMMENTS
  • OTHER NEWS FROM THE COMPANY
No comments for this blog post, be the first to write a comment – click here

Be a Trusted Advisor for Attendees at LIVE! 2014

Posted on: 3/25/2014

What CEOs of RFID Companies Need to Know

Posted on: 12/18/2012

Tools for UHF Deployments

Posted on: 11/13/2012

RFID Journal Publishes Article No. 10,000

Posted on: 11/6/2012

Where to Find Good RFID Leads

Posted on: 9/27/2012

Talk to End Users About Their Business Problems

Posted on: 4/2/2012

RFID for a Good Cause

Posted on: 3/23/2012

About That Untapped Pool of Customers

Posted on: 3/15/2012

Hello! I'm Ready to Buy an RFID Solution

Posted on: 3/13/2012

Is There an Untapped Pool of RFID Customers Somewhere?

Posted on: 3/12/2012

How Small Companies Can Market RFID Successfully

Posted on: 3/9/2012

5 Common Mistakes Made by RFID Marketers

Posted on: 2/29/2012

Veterans Health Administration Seeks RTLS Experts

Posted on: 1/28/2011

How Do You Value Information?

Posted on: 11/17/2010

Maximizing Exhibitor ROI at RFID Journal LIVE! 2011

Posted on: 11/16/2010

RFID Could Reduce Return Fraud—a $14 Billion Problem

Posted on: 11/9/2010

Seeking Judges for the RFID Journal Awards

Posted on: 11/8/2010

Hong Kong RFID Awards 2010 Announced

Posted on: 10/20/2010

Some Positive Coverage of RFID

Posted on: 10/19/2010

More Musings on Moore

Posted on: 9/23/2010

More Free Advice for RFID Vendors

Posted on: 9/22/2010

Free Advice for RFID Vendors

Posted on: 9/21/2010

Inside an RFID Industry Roundtable

Posted on: 9/17/2010

Wal-Mart's President Says EPC RFID Strategy Is Working

Posted on: 9/16/2010

Are RFID-Enabled Credit Cards Safer Than Magstripe Cards?

Posted on: 9/15/2010

Technology Predictions Aren't Always Accurate

Posted on: 9/14/2010

Should We Be Tracking Kids With RFID?

Posted on: 9/13/2010

Internet of Things Event in Tokyo

Posted on: 9/8/2010

The Future is Not Inevitably Bleak

Posted on: 9/7/2010

The RFID Privacy Conundrum

Posted on: 8/27/2010

Using RFID to Improve Online Availability

Posted on: 8/26/2010

Coca-Cola Event Exploits RFID on Facebook

Posted on: 8/25/2010

Awarepoint's Big RTLS Music Video Contest

Posted on: 8/24/2010

PBS NewsHour Responds to RFID Journal

Posted on: 8/19/2010

PBS NewsHour Misinforms Viewers on RFID

Posted on: 8/16/2010

Academic Navel Gazing Continues

Posted on: 8/12/2010

A Privacy Expert’s Misguided View of RFID

Posted on: 8/11/2010

Please Contribute to the Sinclair Laing Memorial Scholarship Fund

Posted on: 8/9/2010

Using RFID to Solve Postal Address Problems

Posted on: 8/6/2010

BNET Blogger Spreads False Info About Wal-Mart and Privacy

Posted on: 8/5/2010

RFID Not at Fault in Passport Test

Posted on: 8/2/2010

Why Isn't Wal-Mart Killing the Tags?

Posted on: 7/27/2010

Privacy Nonsense Sweeps the Internet

Posted on: 7/26/2010

Thank You, Bill Hardgrave

Posted on: 7/9/2010

Staff Spread Too Thin? RFID Can Help

Posted on: 6/22/2010

ABC Eyewitness News Presents Selective Facts About RFID Credit Cards

Posted on: 5/28/2010

Presentations now available

Posted on: 5/6/2010

Do You Want to Be an RFID Gorilla?

Posted on: 4/2/2010

Why Contextual Marketing Works

Posted on: 3/30/2010

Would Geoffrey Moore Validate Your Business Model?

Posted on: 3/17/2010

The Biggest Mistakes Vendors Make at Trade Shows

Posted on: 3/9/2010

The Biggest Mistakes RFID Marketers Make

Posted on: 2/28/2010

When Will RFID Become a Mainstream Technology?

Posted on: 2/23/2010

Build the Whole RFID Solution

Posted on: 2/18/2010

RFID Deployments Rarely Start in the C-suite

Posted on: 2/12/2010

Be wary of hotel solicitations

Posted on: 2/7/2010

Start Blogging

Posted on: 2/5/2010

Welcome to the all new RFID Connect

Posted on: 1/26/2010

WRITER’S BIOGRAPHY

Mark Roberti

Founder and Editor

RFID Journal

SEND EMAIL SUBSCRIBE TO THIS BLOG POST COMMENT

  Add them to my Contact List

  Recommend this blog

BLOG DESCRIPTION

Mark Roberti is the founder and editor of RFID Journal. His blog focuses on all aspects of radio frequency identification and related technologies.