Letters to the editor

Oct. 1, 2003
Reader: "Don't downplay privacy issues!" In reference to on paranoia and RFID technology in the September issue of MHM (page

Reader: "Don't downplay privacy issues!"

In reference to [Leslie Langnau's column] on paranoia and RFID technology in the September issue of MHM (page 18): I am neither paranoid nor ignorant, nor do I have any inclination to hang out with members of a consumer privacy group. I do, however, feel you are mistaken when you state that education related to RFID will quell the concerns of these privacy advocates. The fact is RFID technology is capable of doing what they fear, and education will only confirm this.

Advancements in information technology do raise many legitimate privacy concerns and to think there are not people in the corporate world salivating over the possibility of profiling potential customers is naive. Five years ago, mention of corporate sponsored spyware sneaking into your personal computer would likely have been thought to be paranoid, but today is a reality.

As for RFID, how would you like to walk into an auto dealership and have an RFID reader automatically read an RFID enabled credit card in your pocket or purse, notifying the salesmen of your high credit rating and the fact that you overpaid for your last new car purchase? What kind of a deal would you expect to receive? Or say you just left a movie theater at the mall and stopped in a department store to buy a gift for a friend. Suddenly a salesperson is stalking you trying to sell you a leather trench coat and dark sunglasses because an RFID reader read the ticket stub in your pocket and determined you just saw the fifth sequel to the Matrix. Or maybe, while in the same department store, an RFID reader reads the tags embedded in your clothes and suddenly an electronic voice is telling you your shirt doesn't match you pants and it's time to buy new underwear.

As silly or paranoid as these may seem, they are within the capabilities of RFID and information technology.

The primary reason I am not too worried about this in the near future is more related to the incompetence of both the government and the business world when it comes to fully utilizing technology than it is to the capabilities of technology. I also believe it will be quite a while before RFID will be cost-effective for any widespread application of item-based tracking of consumer goods. Until then, pallet-level and case-level tracking seem to show a lot of potential without freaking out the privacy groups.

Privacy concerns related to misuse of information technology will continue to be a legitimate issue and we will likely see more and more legislation designed to regulate use of these technologies. As much as we all dislike it, regulation will likely be necessary as businesses get more sophisticated in their use of information systems and related technologies. So while education may be the cure for paranoia, it will likely take legislation to solve these legitimate privacy issues.

Dave Piasecki

Inventory Operations Consulting LLC

[email protected]

Leslie replies:

Mr. Piasecki is right in that RFID is capable of doing what privacy advocates fear, to a point. I just returned from a conference on a technology referred to as Business Intelligence, and the advances software, artificial intelligence, and statistical modeling have made in analyzing data for just the sort of exploitation privacy groups fear is impressive, and a bit alarming.

There won't be RFID scanners on every street corner yet. As Mr. Piasecki (and I in a June column) noted, various infrastructure issues will impede the nightmare scenarios privacy advocates groups fear. However, knowing what's in your wallet and what's on your credit card-well, lots of people already know that. Have you had a telemarketer for a credit card company try to sell you a lower interest rate on a credit card? They already know what you charge, simply because you charge.

RFID is not the bogey man. RFID is not the only technology used to gather data on us. The telephone is a more powerful data gathering tool today. The point of the September column is that RFID should not be scuttled because privacy groups take issue with its data gathering capability. If privacy groups really want to prevent information abuse - a serious issue and one that needs addressing - then they should go after the telephone, credit companies and anyone with access to a credit card machine, the Internet, as well as any merchandiser that doesn't work with cash only. Every time you make a purchase with something other than cash, data have been collected on you.

Legislation is already taking effect. Been to your doctor lately? If you were, you had to read and sign a long form informing you of the uses the doctors were allowed to make of the information on your treatment, primarily for insurance purposes, but also for the potential of abuse. The legislation is called HIPAA, and if you were like me, when you first saw it, you had little clue as to what this was about. Education is still important. It's still crucial for people to know just what technology can and can't do, if for no other reason than to help design proper legislation.

But more needs to be done. The conference had one session on the ethics of data collection and data analysis. This is where privacy advocate groups need to focus their attention. As Dr. Richard Hackathorn, the speaker at that session said, "Technology can do these things that privacy groups fear. The question those of you in this field need to ask is, should you do these data gathering and analysis functions when your boss requests it? Just because you can, doesn't mean you should."

I'll have more on this in my next column. The conference had some fascinating discoveries. We're at the tip of a new world, with lots of new and old issues to deal with.

Leslie Langnau

Contributing Editor