RFID Ecosystem Project : RFID Use in Our Future May Not Be Pretty

There is a very interesting article in the Seattle Times about a National Science Foundation funded experiment at the University of Washington called the RFID Ecosystem project. According to the story, a number of University of Washington "students, faculty and staff are being tracked as they move about the computer-science building, with details of where they've been, and with whom, stored in a database."

The point of the exercise is to "explore both positive and negative aspects of a world saturated with technology that can monitor people and objects remotely."

Computer science and engineering Professor Gaetano Borriello says in the article that, "Our objective is to create a future world where RFID is everywhere and figure out problems we'll run into before we get there."

The project has highlighted how easily a person's privacy can be penetrated without their knowing about it - something that governments around the world have started exploiting.

The article, for example, describes how the UK police are increasingly asking for information from London's RFID-based transit cards as well as the governmental activities in southern China, where "the government is installing RFID readers throughout the city of Shenzhen to track movements of citizens, and U.S. companies are helping deploy the technology. Chips in national ID cards contain not just a number, but a person's work history, education, religion, ethnicity, police record and reproductive history."

The article also notes that the Department of Homeland Security requires states to use an RFID chip in driver licenses that is readable from a distance and is compatible with its REAL ID initiative, which Borriello doesn't think is a good idea.

"There's no reason to have remotely readable technology in a driver's license," Borriello is quoted as saying in the article. Instead, he "recommends a system that requires contact with the surface of a reader, so the license-holder knows when information on his license is being read."

If you want to see how RFID may be used in your near-future, go read the story and the other publications at the UW RFID Ecosystem project website.

IEEE Spectrum also had an article last March on the ethics of implanted RFID chips and another in December 2004 on how employers are using surveillance technology to keep an eye on workers.


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Robert Charette
Spotsylvania, Va.
Willie D. Jones
New York City