Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

RFID backfire

Wired News reports on a campaign to portray RFID as antiterrorist technology:

Facing increasing resistance and concerns about privacy, the United States’ largest food companies and retailers will try to win consumer approval for radio identification devices by portraying the technology as an essential tool for keeping the nation’s food supply safe from terrorists.

The companies are banding together and through an industry association are lobbying to have the Department of Homeland Security designate radio frequency identification, or RFID, as an antiterrorism technology.

You heard it here first: This is going to backfire. It won’t make RFID seem warmer and fuzzier, it’ll make it look more like a tool to track ordinary people.

The way to get RFID to be accepted by the general public is to do three things: make clear that the technology works only in a very short range; that most of the information a tag contains could be gleaned just by looking at a person (gee, the RFID readout says you’re wearing a Gap shirt, Levis jeans, and Nike shoes!); and most important, start encouraging development of technologies that will let consumers use RFID for their own purposes.

For example, I left my cell phone at the office last night, and felt naked all evening. I’d love to have something– probably attached to my keychain, or maybe in the form of a bracelet– that would check whether I have all things I need when I leave the house / office / car / other space I designate (and probably tag).

It should also double as a security device, for those times when I have to set my bag down to chase one of the kids. Is my iPod walking off by itself? Does the tracker now read only five devices in my bag, instead of six? Sound the alarm!


  1. Here’s a link to a related sort of article with a decidedly different feeling about RFIDs–definitely more on the invasion-of-privacy side:


  2. Yeah, Caspian has gotten lots of press recently, especially after it got Benetton to back down from its plan to use RFID in clothing. The interesting thing is, the organization consists of a SINGLE person (at least as of late spring): a graduate student at Harvard. Yet it derailed Benetton.

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