Why Not to Panic about RFIDs

- And What Legislators Can Do to Get the Public to Accept Their Use -

Steven J. Searle

Web Master, TRON Web

There are a lot of Web sites where people are starting to raise alarms about the coming widespread use of radio frequency identification (RFID) tags for products that will be sold at retail outlets. These people, as one might expect, mainly reside in countries where draconian security legislation was quickly enacted with almost no public debate following the events that transpired in New York and Washington, D.C., on September 11, 2001. That is to say, people residing in the so-called Anglo-Saxon countries. They fear RFIDs will be used to create a police state the likes of which even George Orwell couldn't have dreamed up, and to make matters worse, the mainstream media has stoked their fears by reporting that a company in Florida has perfected a RFID-like chip for implanting in humans. Since the TRON Project is also planning to employ RFIDs in TRON-based networks, this hasn't escaped the notice of the anti-RFID forces in the U.S. and elsewhere, and from time to time TRON Project Leader Ken Sakamura's name appears on their Web sites.

First, a little background knowledge is in order. Prof. Sakamura hated the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, because it depicted an artificially intelligent computer murdering human beings in deep space. It has long been his view--actually a vision he hopes to realize--that computers are things that should help people and not hurt them. For that reason, the Enableware symposium aimed at helping the disabled with TRON technologies has been a regular annual feature of the TRON Project since its inception. Moreover, the main goal of the hypernetwork of computers based on the TRON Architecture that is currently being constructed is solely to make life "convenient and pleasant" for human beings. When Prof. Sakamura talks about this technology at various events, he never advocates using it to "make society more secure from unspecified threats." Thus he was absolutely shocked when I told him that his name has appeared on Web sites in the U.S. that were set up to block moves toward the creation of a digital police state there.

There are a lot of reasons not panic about RFID tags. The most important of these is that most RFID tags are dumb transceivers operating on known wavelengths and whose sole function is to read out a product number analogous to today's Universal Product Code numbers on bar codes. In the TRON Project, we are actually creating a Universal Communicator that will be able to talk with these dumb chips, so their existence will be known by anyone who purchases one of these. Undoubtedly, some enterprising fellow will create an advanced version of such a device that will allow the exact position of the chip to be located so that it can be torn out by the consumer. So the consumer will have the ability to locate and deactivate or destroy the RFID tags, if he or she so wishes. Also, since the frequencies of the chips are known, it is easy to envision electronics savvy pranksters developing ways to physically block or electronically jam signals going to/from the tags. They might even develop something that will emit false signals to give incorrect data to surreptitiously placed data gathering devices.

One thing that is frequently overlooked by the anti-RFID Web sites is that the companies that will employ the RFID tags also have a lot of problems with this technology. The cost of the tags is proportionally very high for low-cost products, and to that must be added the additional costs of installing and maintaining nationwide or even worldwide sensor systems and data collection networks. Another big problem is that the more automated businesses become, the more vulnerable they become to equipment failure, which is not to mention the fact that it also makes the internal pilfering of proprietary business data by trusted employees much easier. Most important of all is the external problem, i.e., the moving of proprietary business data through the Internet, which is notoriously insecure and is constantly being probed by hackers working for themselves, private organizations, and even government intelligence agencies. So the widespread use of RFID tags is filled with risks for businesses, too.

The best way to alleviate the public's misgivings about RFID tags is for national legislators throughout the world to pass strict laws with severe penalties that guarantee the individual's right to privacy in ubiquitous computing networks. Privacy rights are to the individual what intellectual property rights are to corporations--something sacred and inviolable. So sacred and inviolable are corporate intellectual property rights that when individuals violate them they are given severe punishments, such as lengthy prison sentences. It is ironic in the extreme, then, to listen to computer corporate chieftains and their supporters in the technical press tell the public to get used to the idea that they are going to have less privacy in the future. It's the wave of the future, they claim, and you're a Luddite if you try to resist it. Well, I beg to disagree. A person's privacy is private property. Only by respecting that concept and enshrining it in law will it be possible to get the public to go along with the widespread use of RFID tags.