RFID: another attack on our privacy?

Posted by David Gomez

Radio-frequency identification tags. They are small, controversial, and they have been around for decades.

RFID tags use radio waves that allow reader devices to obtain data the tag emits. They are now cheaper to produce than ever and their use is becoming more widespread.

Businesses love RFID because it gives them information about the location of their products, and they say they can use RFID information from merchandise to give the consumer a better shopping experience. Critics feel that RFID is an invasion of privacy.

And in Contra Costa County, California they have begun giving preschool aged children jerseys with RFID tags in them. They say it will make the kids easier to keep track of, and it will save thousands of hours in staff time.

Nicole Ozer at the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California thinks that the technology could put the children at risk. “Without real security, RFID chips could actually make preschoolers more vulnerable to tracking, stalking and kidnapping,” Ozer said in an ACLU blog post.

So it should make people wonder, the preschoolers in California are they really safe? Is it fair to the children to put them at such a risk because the adults want to make their jobs less tedious?

And speaking of tedious jobs, Wal-Mart is a supporter of RFID. The mega-chain has started placing tags in jeans and underwear. The tags have remained active even after customers took them home and disposed of them in the trash.

And again, that seems to be a theme with modern RFID tags. While the tags were meant to make consumers lives and certain people’s jobs easier, they have potentially put an even greater amount of people at risk.

That means any scumbag with a few hundred bucks lying around could purchase an RFID signal receiver and scan your trash to get information about you. Things like your recent purchases, and where you shop for example. In a short amount of time they might even be able to use the scraps of radio wave data to pick up some of your habits.

Supporters of the RFID industry argue that delicate information would be protected because the information would be listed as a serial number and you would need access to the retailer’s server to get information about your trash contents.

However servers can be hacked, and no information is truly safe once it is made digital.

Digital Privacy advocates wonder if we can trust retailers to manage this information on their own. And they have a point.

How are these retail giants who care mostly about maximizing profit really going to use your information? Are they all of a sudden going to bump customer privacy ahead of profit on their list of priorities?

It is creepy to think that the retail chains that I shop at could possibly use RFID to track what I buy, how often I buy it, and what other stores I go to when I leave their store. Money makes the rules, and the use of RFID is going to increase in the near future.