Privacy and Data Collection

Will governments be able to use RFID to spy on people?
If companies choose to put RFID tags in clothes and items consumers carry around, such as wallets, and consumers choose not to kill the tags in these items, it might be possible for governments to use RFID tags for surveillance. But they would have to have access to the database of information related to the tags’ EPCs, and it would be easy for individuals to avoid being tracked. RFID readers must emit radio waves to read tags. The signals from a reader can easily be detected and blocked.

In the future, is it possible that a criminal could scan the EPCs on watches, jewelry and other items to choose whom to rob?
It’s not clear whether RFID tags will ever be used on these items. Companies may simply use them in the packaging of these items. People who buy valuable items will also have the option to kill the tag in these items. But if a company did embed a tag in a watch and a consumer chose not to kill the tag, it would be possible to scan the RFID tag on the item from close range (the tag would have to have a very small antenna to be embedded in a watch, which means the read range would be less than a foot). The criminal would have to know that the serial numbers contained on the tags are associated with high-value products.

What information is stored on RFID tags?
The tags most companies are planning to use in the supply chain in the short term and in consumer packaging in the long term will contain only an Electronic Product Code. The EPC will be associated with data in online databases. Some information about the item might be accessible to anyone-such as what the product is-but other information, such as where it was made and when-will be accessible only to those whom the manufacturer wants to make the information available to. So Wal-Mart will not have access to data about products sold by Target and vice versa.

Why are companies so keen to use RFID if it is not to gain more information on consumers?
RFID could dramatically improve efficiency in the supply chain and reduce waste. If it can reduce the times products are not on the shelf when consumers want to buy they, it could also increase sales.

Are there laws governing the use of RFID?
Many existing privacy laws cover the use of data collected by RFID systems, as well as bar codes and other systems. Some U.S. states have enacted or considered enacting new laws dealing with issues particular to RFID, such as the surreptitious scanning of tags by retailers or those with criminal intent. Washington introduced HB 1031 (the Electronic Bill of Rights), imposing rules on how companies could deploy RFID and retain personal information gathered via the technology, but this bill was returned to the House Rules Committee Washington’s RFID Bill Halted. Michigan has created a payment incentive program to help ameliorate the cost to farmers, while still ensuring that the majority of livestock is tagged. Michigan has mandated the use of RFID tags to identify cattle, and more than a dozen other states have introduced laws limiting attempts to require RFID use for livestock. Wisconsin has no intention to mandate animal identification, but has offered an incentive program similar to Michigan’s. New Hampshire’s House of Representatives approved HB-203, requiring warning labels on consumer goods and identity documents containing RFID tags or other tracking devices, as well as regulating the use of RFID for tracking individuals, and establishing a commission on the use of tracking devices in government and business. The bill was sent to the N.H. Senate to be assigned a hearing committee. And California proposed SB 768 (the Identity Information Protection Act of 2006), which would have been the first state bill to address how RFID technology could be used in government identification documents. Calif. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, however, vetoed the bill. Most countries outside the United States have not yet passed such laws.

What kind of data do companies want to collect?
Companies are interested in using RFID in the supply chain. The main goal is to use it to make sure they have products on the shelves when companies want to buy them. It’s envisioned that “smart shelves”—shelves with RFID readers in them—will alert staff when inventory is running low. There is also hope that RFID can be used to reduce theft by alerting staff when there is unusual shelf activity—such as when someone grabs a dozen tubes of lipstick or razors.

Can RFID tags be read from satellites?
Passive RFID tags, the kind companies are talking about using one day on consumer products, can’t be read from more than 20 feet or so. Active RFID tags, which use a battery to broadcast a signal and are used on cargo containers and other large assets, could be read from a satellite if there is little RF “noise” (ambient RF energy that causes interference) and the broadcasted signal is powerful enough.

From how far away can a typical RFID tag be read?
The distance from which a tag can be read is called its read range. Read range depends on a number of factors, including the frequency of the radio waves uses for tag-reader communication, the size of the tag antenna, the power output of the reader, and whether the tags have a battery to broadcast a signal or gather energy from a reader and merely reflect a weak signal back to the reader. Battery-powered tags typically have a read range of 300 feet (100 meters). These are the kinds of tags used in toll collection systems. High-frequency tags, which are often used in smart cards, have a read range of three feet or less. UHF tags-the kind used on pallets and cases of goods in the supply chain-have a read range of 20 to 30 feet under ideal conditions. If the tags are attached to products with water or metal, the read range can be significantly less. If the size of the UHF antenna is reduced, that will also dramatically reduce the read range. Increasing the power output could increase the range, but most governments restrict the output of readers so that they don’t interfere with other RF devices, such as cordless phones.

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