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RFID Privacy

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RFID News has an excellent analysis of a recent USA Today column on hypothetical nightmarish privacy violations by companies utilizing RFID tags. The gist of the analysis is that USA Today is sensationalizing the concept. Companies, governments, and individuals already have far easier and more effective ways of gathering information about you than RFID can provide.

One example of the “sky is falling” reporting is their scenario of marketers watching what you are interested in:

A department store’s RFID system recognizes that you’re carrying an item you bought there last week. Now it knows who you are. And if there are readers scattered about, it knows where you’re going. Come home to a phone call, “Mr. Kantor, we noticed you were shopping for a television…”

Retailers are smarter than that. They tend to avoid behavior that consumers are going to find creepy. When I worked for a telecomunications company I found that when someone called our call center, the systems automatically looked up the phone number of the incoming call (this was before caller ID was popular or widespread), looked up the corresponding account, and displayed the account details on the operator’s screen.

They had initially experimented with answering the phone, “Thank you for calling us Mr. Johnson. How can we help you today?” Callers understandably found this a little spooky, so the operators began answering the phone as if they had no idea who was on the other end.

If a retailer were to use RFID or any other method of identification to discover who was browsing for what products, they would likely use this information in a way that was much less overt. Email offers sent would magically include deals on products that the consumer was interested in. Direct mail would be targeted with products that a large number of people in a particular zip code had shown interest in.

It’s also important to note that, at this point at least, most companies don’t have their databases integrated to the point that they can target marketing in this method. Retailers spend billions of dollars on products that don’t sell, merchandising that doesn’t work, and marketing that falls flat. Many of these companies have the data that could have prevented these problems but are unable to properly analyze it to extract valuable information.

At least right now, that’s what’s going to prevent wholesale intrusions into our privacy — the inefficiencies and ineptitude of corporate data operations. Companies are already drowing in data. Turning that data into useful information is a lot harder than it sounds.

December 28, 2003 8:33 PM

holy cow your site is hosed... what happened? can't even ready your entries...

Trackback from Anders Jacobsen's blog
January 2, 2004 3:55 AM

RFID and privacy

Excerpt: [...] I'm not advocating brining out the tinfoil hats just yet, BUT: [...]

BB Black
January 3, 2006 12:33 PM

With un-encrypted RFID the US government is now issuing in Passports we all need to protect ourselves from privacy invasion. Most places on the web say to wrap your wallet in “tin foil”. I am sick of hearing that RFID signals are blocked by Aluminum foil. They are not stop believing it. My father in law is a radio engineer and he has to block radio signals all of the time. The best material is Pure Copper which complies with the US government Tempest regulations. For more information on RFID (spy chips) go to Http:// for a RFID Blocking wallet HTTP://

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