March 23, 2006



Posted: 11.15.05

Mobile Knowledge: RFID cards II: A rebuttal

The battle between good and evil defines our history and dominates our news and psyche. Literature from ancient china to modern society is filled with axioms and clichés telling us that we live in a black and white world where each coin has two sides and every story has at least two sides, if not more. A few weeks ago my guest, Murray Slovick, shared with us some of his views and the potential privacy and security shortcomings of RFID implementations. Today, Tim Heffernan, director of government relations and public affairs at Symbol Technologies and vice chair for the RFID working group of the Information Technology Industry Council is here to share his views and the potential benefits or RFID. While today’s story is not a direct rebuttal to Slovick’s, it does tackle the same concept from a different point of view.
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By Lubna Dajani

I did not know Tim Heffernan prior to posting the column, but I enjoyed the passion evident in his letter and even more so in his voice as we spoke on the phone. Here is some of what Tim had to say…

“RFID is a wireless tag that contains bits of information. The information is read by a reader, much like a scanner interprets information on bar codes at grocery store checkout lines.

The United States is the mother of RFID technology and holds most of the technology’s intellectual property now. But it seems that some officials are attempting to ban the technology, similar to China’s failed effort to outlaw the Internet in the 1990s.

Groups such as CASPIAN – Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering – and the ACLU have conjured up incredible tales of information stealing to sow fear about RFID. But they cannot point to a single case of a consumer’s privacy being violated by unscrupulous persons using RFID. Just the opposite is the case.

RFID tags allow the Department of Defense to better manage its inventory to ensure our troops are supplied with what they need when they need it. Stores like Wal-Mart are using RFID to manage their supply chain, improve efficiency and reduce costs.

The benefits of RFID extend from the store to the workplace and travel. The card that gives you controlled access to your office building uses RFID. And if you are “challenged” when you go shopping for clothes, RFID may also help you figure out if that tie goes with the shirt you bought yesterday. You could just bring in the tag and look for the matching tie. Pretty soon RFID tags will even help you create automatic shopping lists that are beamed to your cell phone, BlackBerry or laptop as you walk through the kitchen.

There is an added safety benefit of RFID to consumers in the food and drug supply and when we travel. An RFID system can create a digital record of our food supply from farm to plate. With mad cow, foot and mouth and other food-born communicable diseases worrying consumers, RFID will help protect them in the event of a food recall and eliminate bad lots from the food supply and identify the source of the contaminant.

With an estimated eight to ten percent of prescription drugs counterfeit worldwide, a digital pedigree would help reduce this problem. Enabled by RFID, it would help protect consumers when they go to the pharmacy to get drugs to ensure that the medicine their doctors prescribed is not a cheap counterfeit.

RFID systems in airports also help protect us when we travel. Some airports are already using RFID to ensure that your luggage is not lost.

The addition of RFID to any security system also makes it harder for thieves to access the information they are trying to get. For example, prior to RFID chips in a car, a simple screwdriver and hammer could be used to start the ignition. Cars equipped with RFID mandate that thieves invest in technology and then crack the RFID code.

Thirty years ago, the bar code went through the same public debate and would have been banned from grocery stores if Phil Donohue had his way. The thought makes us chuckle and shudder to imagine a check out line where a clerk would still have to manually key in every item we purchased.

We all value and vigilantly protect our privacy. RFID does not threaten our privacy. It holds the promise of personalized services, enhanced security and identity protection, convenience and savings. All of these benefits will soon be reaped by our society and the information will be yours and yours alone, unless those who fear change make it impossible to bring RFID services to business, government and consumers.

It is natural to fear what we do not understand, however, we should not let fear control our actions. Instead use it in a healthy manner and turn it into curiosity and ingenuity, which may help us learn how to better use this technology to improve our lives.”

Tim, thank you for so passionately sharing your thoughts with us. I agree with you, as innovators, visionaries and regulators, it is our responsibility to exploit technology for the benefit of people.

Clearly when it comes to things like supply-chain management and inventory tracking, the benefits of RFID are a no-brainer. Heck, I might even start checking my luggage rather than lugging it on board. And I most certainly know a few people who could use help picking out a matching tie.

While we may live in a day and night world we all know that we spend most of our time swinging from one to the other. As always, thank you for your support and for sharing your time and thoughts with me. I love hearing back from you, so please keep sharing your thoughts and e-mails with me at [email protected]

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