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December 18, 2006

RFID and Privacy or Convenience?

eWeek has a good article on How To Respect Privacy with RFID

Imagine no checkout at the supermarket; you just walk out the door with your goods. As you exit, the RFID tags on all the items you bought are read by the store's scanners, which also read your RFID credit card.

That sounds like a really good benefit. The article is worth reading. It covers not only the benefits, but also the potential abuses of such a system. In the end, it's not the data that's collected, but what you do with it (or what someone else might do with it) that becomes the potential abuse.

But the things we worry about are already taking place. The supermarket 'membership' card that you have on your keychain - which gives you special member coupons - also tracks your purchases. The coupons spit out at the register (to entice a repeat visit) are targeted towards your personalized spending habits. They know who you are and what you buy. They know what movies you watch. They know what you spend money on and how often. The only comfort is that the "They" in each statement above refers to different companies that are supposedly not sharing information.

The benefits are numerous. There are not only personal benefits (how many would do whatever it takes to get out of waiting in a long line at the checkout?), but financial benefits for the companies involved. Supply chain inventories could be better managed - and your favorite store wouldn't run out of your favorite item just when you went to purchase it. Murphy's Law defeated - finally! And the companies could use the information to apply 'just-in-time' parts and products ... thereby reducing their overhead and possibly reducing the per-item cost. [Of course those savings may just go to stockholders or executive bonuses, but at least they would have the capacity to lower prices without incurring a loss - making it more likely.]

The LoJack Early Warning Recovery System uses a small box that one keeps on a keychain with any keys that would operate a car. The box, of course, contains an RFID chip that communicates with LoJack hardware concealed in the car. If the car moves without the box/chip in the car, the LoJack company receives a signal and notifies the customer through multiple means (phone calls, e-mails, pages) that the car may be in motion without the rightful driver behind the wheel.This is a good example of the sort of trade-off that RFID presents all the time: there is a clear benefit to customer in that they can find out, potentially very quickly, if their car is being stolen (or towed, for that matter). But the system's Early Warning System and other features of LoJack create the potential for the company to learn things about you that are none of their business.

Wonder how many insurance companies will offer discounts for that? Or require it?

Posted by BlueWolf on December 18, 2006 01:09 PM