RFID—the technology is real; the threat is not

RFID privacy concerns have made news again. The Associated Press reported on a video of a security consultant in California filming himself reading the identifiers off of the new U.S. passport cards (PASS cards). As I’ve previously argued, most of these claims about RFID are bogus. Even in this most recent example, what did the self-described “hacker” really learn while driving around? A passport containing the unique identifier X was at location Y at time Z. That’s all. Even assuming there was a way to link these identifiers to people, the same information could be achieved by simply watching people as you walk down a street. Privacy advocates like to argue that RFID is another step towards a high-tech dystopia where the government (and private companies) will track your every move. Unfortunately, for these critics, these privacy concerns are based more on perception than any actual risk. The simple reality is that the benefits from RFID far outweigh these concerns (concerns, of course, because they are all based on scenarios not actual events).

RFID offers many benefits to businesses, government and individuals. RFID benefits consumers and businesses considerably by creating more efficiency in the supply-chain and making goods and services more affordable. In health care, RFID can be used to increase patient safety, track inventory, and improve drug safety. Government is also using RFID technology to improve efficiency as well as national security. For example, RFID chips in passports will aid Homeland Security officials at border crossings to both verify that information on the card is correct as well as speed up processing.

The long, slow march of technological progress has always been resisted by some on the grounds of privacy concerns. Today we routinely use a variety of devices and technology that at one point privacy advocates objected to—from cell phones to toll passes to loyalty cards to barcodes to license plates to cameras. And just because something can be used for bad purposes, does not mean it will be. For example, people have the capability of putting bugs in rooms, but for they don’t. And just because people could do this, that does not mean we should ban microelectronics.

Too often privacy advocates resemble the slick real estate salesmen talking up the great investment potential of a timeshare while staying unsettlingly quiet about the actual costs. Ask anyone if they want more privacy, and without hesitation they will likely answer yes. But ask that same person to pull out his wallet and pay for that privacy and most people will reconsider.

The privacy concern is overstated by many and inaccurate to say the least. It is important for the government and businesses to embrace technology and use it as a tool to improve their procedures and as a result our everyday lives.

All of this can be condensed to a single message:

RFID—the technology is real; the threat is not.

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About the author

Dr. Robert D. Atkinson is one of the country’s foremost thinkers on innovation economics. With has an extensive background in technology policy, he has conducted ground-breaking research projects on technology and innovation, is a valued adviser to state and national policy makers, and a popular speaker on innovation policy nationally and internationally. He is the author of "Innovation Economics: The Race for Global Advantage" (Yale, forthcoming) and "The Past and Future of America’s Economy: Long Waves of Innovation That Power Cycles of Growth" (Edward Elgar, 2005). Before coming to ITIF, Atkinson was Vice President of the Progressive Policy Institute and Director of PPI’s Technology & New Economy Project. Ars Technica listed Atkinson as one of 2009’s Tech Policy People to Watch. He has testified before a number of committees in Congress and has appeared in various media outlets including CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, NPR, and NBC Nightly News. He received his Ph.D. in City and Regional Planning from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1989.