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RFID-Radio Frequency Identification-is a powerful enabling technology with a wide range of potential applications. Its proponents initially overhyped its capabilities and business case: RFID deployment is proceeding along a much slower and less predictable trajectory than was initially thought. Nonetheless, in the end it is plausible that we will find ourselves moving in the direction of a world with pervasive RFID: a world in which objects' wireless self-identification will become much more nearly routine, and networked devices will routinely collect and process the resulting information.

RFID-equipped goods and documents present privacy threats: they may reveal information about themselves, and hence about the people carrying them, wirelessly to people whom the subjects might not have chosen to inform. That information leakage follows individuals, and reveals how they move through space. Not only does the profile that RFID technology helps construct contain information about where the subject is and has been, but RFID signifiers travel with the subject in the physical world, conveying information to devices that otherwise would not recognize it and that can take actions based on that information. RFID implementations, thus, can present three related privacy threats, which this article categorizes as surveillance, profiling, and action.

RFID privacy consequences will differ in different implementations. It would be a mistake to conclude that an RFID implementation will pose no meaningful privacy threat because a tag does not directly store personally identifiable information, instead containing only a pointer to information contained in a separate database. Aside from any privacy threats presented by the database proprietor, privacy threats from third parties will depend on the extent to which those third parties can buy, barter, or otherwise gain database access. Where a tag neither points to nor carries personal identifying information, the extent of the privacy threat will depend in part on the degree to which data collectors will be able to link tag numbers with personally identifying information. Yet as profiling accelerates in the modem world, aided by the automatic, networked collection of information, information compiled by one data collector will increasingly be available to others as well; linking persistent identifiers to personally identifying information may turn out to be easy. Nor are sophisticated access controls and other cryptographic protections a complete answer to RFID privacy threats. The cost of those protections will make them impractical for many applications, though, and even with more sophisticated technology, security problems will remain.

This article suggests appropriate government and regulatory responses to two important categories of RFID implementation. It concludes with a way of looking at, and an agenda for further research on, wireless identification technology more generally.


Privacy Law | Science and Technology Law