Convenience and Safety vs. Privacy: The
Ethics of Radio Frequency Identification
By Paul Liao, Alexis Smith, and Connie Wang
“The identification chips, contained in a glass capsule that's slightly larger than
a grain of rice, were injected into their upper arms by a syringe-like device.
When activated by a scanning signal, the chips send out a unique 64-bit code
that can be linked to the person 's identity, along with all sorts of other pertinent
information, like security clearance. ” 1
A mother is panicking because she cannot find her child at a busy daycare. The daycare provider quickly sweeps an electronic wand around the playground: within seconds, the childís exact location is identified due to a RFID chip implanted under his skin, and the worried mother is able to find her child immediately. While this scenario seems a little far-fetched, technology has been developing so quickly that a situation such as this is not as far off into the future as one would imagine. Radio Frequency Identification, or RFID, is an electronic identification method that utilizes radio waves. RFID can use various methods for identification, but the most common method it uses is storing a serial identification number with personal information on a chip, which is attached to an antenna and can then transmit information to a reader. RFID chips or tags are used for storing or identifying information, and can have an unlimited amount of uses, from inventory control to human implantation. Like bar codes, RFID is extremely useful for processes such as tracking inventory, but as an added benefit, can be read from further distances and for more complex purposes.
Ethical Issues of RFID Technology
Because RFID technology raises numerous ethical issues, we will evaluate these issues through utilitarian and consequence-based ethical frameworks. Utilitarian-based ethics focuses on what provides the greatest good for the greatest number of people, while consequence-based ethics emphasizes the importance of the outcome of every decision, rather than the means used to reach that decision. Although there are ethical concerns with some aspects of human implantation of RFID chips, the overall benefits that RFID technology provides, including increased safety and efficiency, outweigh the concerns. In regards to consequence-based frameworks, the privacy that may be lost far offsets the safety that will be gained by the technology. We believe that while RFID technology has enough benefits to be a useful technology, it needs more control and regulation to make sure it is safe from potential abuse.
Technology for the RFID chip has been in development since 1946, when a device utilizing radio waves was invented for espionage. Since then, similar technologies have been used, but the technology in a RFID chip today boasts the most complex and foolproof technology to date. The RFID tag itself is about the size of a pinhead or grain of sand. The tag includes an antenna and a chip that contains an electronic product code. Information is transmitted from the antenna to a reader, which is then transferred to a computer that can read the information contained in the RFID chip. The transmission range as of yet is only around four feet, but the potential to increase this range is endless. With technology advancing so fast, we could expect the RFID tags to eventually replace the barcodes as identification system of choice. The electronic product tag stores much more information than a regular bar code is capable of, such as when and where the product was made, where the components come from, and when they might perish. Unlike barcodes, which need a line-of-sight to be read, RFID chips do not need a line-of-sight to be detected. 2
The major problem until recently has been the costs associated with RFID. The cost of these chips has not yet reached a point where they are cheaper than current technologies, such as bar codes. Researchers estimate that it still costs around 50 cents for each chip for every product, whereas traditional conventional labels still cost around one cent. The benefits of RFID have still not made the cost per chip worthwhile for most companies, which researchers have estimated to be around $9 million to implement for a typical supplier. The only area where RFID has proved to have a better benefit than cost is in the area of individual human implantation or high-margin products where the 50 cent cost becomes negligible.
There are two main types of RFID chips, active and passive tags. An active tag uses its own battery power to contact the reader. It works at greater distances than passive tags, but has a drawback because of the larger size. A passive tag does not require a battery, but it derives its power from the electromagnetic field created by the signal from the RFID reader. This generates enough power for the tag to respond to the reader with its information, while the range is smaller than active tags. Since no batteries are needed to make the tags function, the useful life is almost unlimited and the size is much smaller than that of active tags. In any case, the key feature of the technology is the ability for an RFID-tagged object to be tracked instantly from anywhere in the world, provided that reader is in range. 3
RFID is intended to have many applications, and can be used in a variety of products. Some examples include use in passports, transport payments, inventory control and tracking. Governments have recently started putting RFID chips into passports as a means of identification and to store information. Today, they are also used in wireless systems: for example, the E-Z passes you see on turnpikes. Countless cities and countries have instated RFID technology in their freeways as a quick form of payment. Cars with RFID chips in them are scanned at tollways, and can automatically be let through based on the information stored in the RFID chip. The major benefit expected from RFID is its potential for revolutionizing the supply chain management, but RFID could have many applications, ranging from payment collections on highways, finding lost kids/animals, tracking of loss or stolen cell phones, or credit card payments.
Several factors will determine the speed at which RFID will enter the mainstream market. The first factor is how many companies will mandate their business partners to use RFIDs. This is a major obstacle because many companies are not on an up-to-date and/or have noncompatible systems. Therefore, a company must invest large amounts of capital not only on software and hardware, but also on people to implement and support, which many companies may not be willing to spend extra dollars on. Spending the money is inevitable, so for some companies, the best solution would be to package a service using Microsoftís RFID infrastructure. .NET is Microsoft Web serviceís strategy to connect information, people, systems, and devices through software. It includes the power of the .NET Framework, SQL Server and Visual Studio .NET. Microsoft .NET is a key part of realizing Microsoftís goal to provide customers/companies with great experience ñ any time, any place, and on any device ñ to make integration and deployment of RFID easier and less costly. 4
Another factor is the success of attempted legislation to limit the amount of information on the tag, or to force removal of tags when a customer pays for the items. One of the biggest fears is if the tag remains active after the purchase of a product, this could potentially enable marketers with the ability to track information about the product after it leaves the store. More legislation will be attempted to pass to protect the privacy of consumers, such as the Washington Stateís House Bill 1031. If passed, it would impose rules on how companies could deploy RFID and retain personal information gathered via the technology. But as of right now, there is a major lack of industry standards. Due to this lack of industry standards regarding the use of personal information that could be encoded on the chips, many privacy advocates have called on companies to state their intended use of technology. However, as of yet, no federal agency has come forth to regulate the usage of the technology which is spiking lots of organizations or groups that want to stop the use of RFIDs. These groups have started websites such as http://www.spychips.com/. 5
One additional ethical implication of RFID is the concern of possible identification of consumers who purchase products with implanted RFID tags. Much like data mining, RFID chips will provide volumes of information about a certain consumer and his/her buying habits. Although companies can claim that they are utilizing this information purely for marketing purposes or to track buying habits, there really is no guarantee that this is all the information will be used for. Also, by compiling information about a customer without their knowledge, consumers run the risk of companies getting asymmetric information about them. This illustrates a major concern that people have about RFID: the fact that they are not aware of the volume or type of information that is being collected on them, a definite invasion of privacy. In addition, if a customer uses a loyalty card such as a frequent buyerís card or memberís card in conjunction with a credit card, a very high risk of matching a customerís purchases to their identity exists.
In spite of the factors mentioned above, RFID is a technology that can vastly improve efficiency and reliability in many areas, especially in the supply chain. Using RFID in improving supply chains is the key in the ongoing development of the tags. Supply chain management can be defined as the management of all the activities along the supply chain from the suppliers to customers, which also includes ordering, monitoring, and billing. In current IT (information technology), there are a few software solutions for managing supply chains, such as the ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) Software. 6 While ERP software can help manage both the internal and external relationships a company has with its business partners, companies are always actively looking for new and more foolproof technologies to ensure dependability and consistency.
RFID in the Supply Chain
So how can RFIDs improve supply chains? If everyone along the supply chain from the retailer to manufacturer to the supplier has the tags, automatic alerts can be sent within each company and between companies. The need for manually counting inventory would become obsolete, as the RFID tags can automatically track the location and quantity of inventory at any given moment. As an added benefit, other companies would have visibility of the current state of another companyís inventory, to ensure things are running smoothly or to check on the status of the inventory. Benefits, like rapid checkouts and automatic billing, can be used to eliminate the need to scan each and every item. Other benefits are real-time information about merchandise, ability to control inventory, ability to prevent theft, and expedited processing of relevant information. 7
Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the largest grocery retailer in the United States, is one of the pioneer companies to incorporate the RFID tags on their shipments. In April of 2004, Wal-Mart launched its first live test of RFID-tracking technology. Wal-Mart used one distribution center, eight suppliers and seven stores in Texas to conduct this test. When the cases and pallets passed near an RFID reader, the chip was activated, and its unique product identifier code was transmitted back to an inventory control system. These cases and pallets were delivered to the distribution center, and the installed RFID readers at the dock doors notified both shippers and Wal-Mart of the kinds of products that were stored. Wal-Mart started to place RFID tags on cases and pallets from its top 100 suppliers in March 2005, with only positive results. The RFID technology was 100% compliant, as the system has proven not only to improve the supply chain, reduce theft, increase sales and reduce inventory cost, but has also helped Wal-Martís supply chain gain visibility and accuracy. The trial was successful enough that in November 2005, Wal-Mart started a joint exercise with Target, which brought them to a total of 13 suppliers with whom they shared data. In February 2007, Wal-Mart had a slight setback when they shifted their plans from distribution hubs to stores, due to the botched installation of RFID in some of their distribution centers in 2006. In addition, many Wal-Mart suppliers have not been able to find enough benefits or cost saving in their part of supply chain to justify using RFID. However, Wal-Mart plans on continuing their adoption of RFID tags for the future. 8
With that in mind, what does the future hold for RFID? Well, as stated and supported above, the future looks bright for RFID, since most of the problems seem to be technical, marketing and lack of standards. From the IT perspective, Wal-Mart should have set a standard by offering a complete package include the software and communication linking it. Another problem is the current high cost of an RFID chip, which makes companies hesitant to implement it as the price is steeper than present technologies the companies are using. Nonetheless, once these obstacles are remedied, RFID will become ìthe next big thing.î It will be a leading solution to many major problems in the business world. To put it in perspective, current indicators show that a few million dollars in software, hardware and human resource capital will soon be well worth the cost-saving potential in this system. 9
RFID for Human Implantation
The more controversial ethical issues with RFID deal with such chips being used for implantation into humans and animals. They are implanted so that they can be used to store information or as a tracking device. Usually in pets, such as a dog or cat, the RFID chip is implanted into the ear and can be used to locate a pet that has gone missing. It is also used in tracking cattle, goats and sheep. Almost every veterinarian has the ability to use implantation in their clinic, proving that RFID has proven to be an extremely useful technology when it comes to tracking animals for their owners or other such purposes. 10
RFID chips for human implantation, however, is a recently growing trend that has some people feeling more uncomfortable than implantation in animals. A company called VeriChip has developed a RFID chip that can be implanted into humans. It is only 1 1mm long, can be read from four feet away, and it is designed to go under the skin so it is unrecognizable. The creators of this RFID technology designed it with the idea in mind to be implanted into children, Alzheimerís patients in danger of running away, and anyone else with a medical disability. The creators of the VeriChip have also created the VeriMed, VeriPrime, VeriKid, and the VeriPay. 11
One use for the VeriChip is for it to be implanted into immigrants. The VeriChip would be encapsulated in glass and then injected into flesh, which could then be read by a radio signal silently and through clothes. It would be a way to number and identify individuals, as well as a way to monitor the influx of immigration. The idea of implanting the VeriChip into immigrants has recently been heightened by the Bush administration, with proponents saying that we need to know ìwho is in our country and why they are here. 12 The chips could also potentially be used for identifying guest workers to know when they cross the border, and ensure that they do not overstay past their allotted time. If immigrants were implanted with the chip, employers could also then be monitored for enforcement purposes. While some may say that it is the governmentís job to regulate immigration and prevent illegal immigrants from entering the country, this instance of utilizing RFID technology seems to be a little extreme. Looking at the matter from the previously mentioned utilitarian and consequence-based ethical frameworks, implanting immigrants with RFID chips would probably have fewer benefits for the general population as a whole. Some may claim that illegal immigrants take jobs, but other than that, there is no real harm being done by the immigrants. The real issue is the entire right of a human being to have control over their own lives and be able to live without constant monitoring and removal of freedoms. In this instance, we do not agree that RFID technology would be beneficial, as removing innate freedoms from human beings is a far larger issue than illegal immigrants entering the United States. If something like this was allowed, one might start to question where the government would draw the line. What would stop them from next implanting RFID chips into their citizens to make sure they donít violate any laws?
Privacy Issues with RFID
Understandably, implanting RFID tags in humans causes many concerns with the public. The three main types of privacy that RFID technology violates include location privacy, information privacy, and decision privacy. With these tags, an individual can be profiled and tracked without their knowledge, infringing upon an individualís right to keep their location private. Moreover, there is no protection against other unauthorized parties tracking those with RFID chips. Many worry that a person may be implanted with a chip for a certain reason, but the scope of monitoring may go much further than the person thinks. For example, someone who has an RFID chip implanted because of medical reasons may be tracked and unknowingly giving information to those outside of those reasons, going against an individualís right to information privacy. Also, because outsiders can gather and utilize information about people without their knowledge, they can make decisions for people and control the access of information they have without their own personal choice. There is the fear of intrusion of privacy as well as the Big Brother factor. Who is watching us and how much do they know about us? Also, how do we know that the information is being used for what companies say it is being used for?
Benefits to Human Implantation of RFID
Another way in which the RFID chips are being used is to hold medical records (VeriMed.) If someone were to be in an accident or need medical attention for another reason, the chip would be able to tell health care specialists of their medical records and possible needs without having to do blood work or some other kind of test. A radio frequency reader, like with all RFID chips, would allow a specialist to retrieve records such as x-rays and medical history quickly so that they could immediately treat a medical issue. The chip could also be in the form of a bracelet instead of being implanted under the skin. This causes concern with some people since it is unknown who has the right to the information contained in the chips and when they have a right to the information. Advocates for the VeriMed argue that the life-saving benefits far outweigh any privacy issues that may arise.
During the September 11th attack, firefighters were writing their badge number on their arms so that if they were found and were unrecognizable, they could be identified. This brought about the idea of implanting them into the human body. The RFID tags would allow the reader to identify anyone regardless if they were disfigured or trapped. Richard Seelig implanted a RFID chip into his arm and after verifying that it worked, the VeriChip was born. Approximately 1,000 or so chips have been implanted into humans to date, mostly outside of the United States and there have yet to be any known side effects. 13
The use of the chip would also heighten security by only allowing certain people into secure areas. They would be known as safe because the reader would identify an individual and allow them or not allow them into certain areas. This would certainly prevent unauthorized people from entering these areas, and also prevent errors that might let in the wrong people. RFID technology is currently being used in Latin America in order to try and curb the kidnapping epidemic in that area. Once outfitted with a RFID tag, it would be much easier to locate and track people who are kidnapped. The advocates for the VeriChip argue that between keeping their families safe and keeping their families private, they would much prefer the safety.
The RFID chip does not necessarily need to be implanted into the skin. There is also a bracelet that can hold the chip and can emit the same frequencies. These are currently being used in prisons to track inmates and trace their movements in case they need to later investigate their actions. Since the installation, violence has gone down 60%. 14
As RFID technology improves, the possibilities of RFID chips has continued to grow: it has extended to such lengths as to keep children safe, identify soldiers in wartime, monitor employees, help Alzheimer patients and their families, and even as a quick and easy form of payment. Some of these ideas seem smart and beneficial overall: soldiersí remains could be identified almost 100% of the time, Alzheimer patientsí families could always locate where they were, and children would never get lost. In these instances, the general population would be better off overall, and the outcome would be a positive one, making RFID technology acceptable according to utilitarian and consequence-based ethical frameworks. Recently, a Japanese elementary school in Osaka outfitted all its students with a RFID tag to prevent them from wandering off. The ultimate expansion of RFID technology can be seen by the opening of a new nightclub in Barcelona, Spain. Customers were offered the chance to have RFID chips implanted inside of them so that they could enjoy member benefits and directly pay for drinks, instead of carrying around cash. 15 Ideas such as these show the rapid growth of RFID, and while there seems to be no harm in the previously mentioned situations, other uses seem a little more intrusive and uneasy. For example, if companies put RFID technology on their employees, they could very well make sure that the employee was productive and on-time to work: however, they could also use this technology to monitor breaks and the exact location of the employee at all times. Constant monitoring such as this is mildly reminiscent of a police state, which is exactly what many fear will happen if the technology gets out of control.
Concerns with RFID
Concerns over RFID technology continue to mount despite some of the benefits of the RFID chip. Because so many people have showed their concerns about privacy issues pertaining to the device, many companies have abandoned plans to use the tags. Another problem with RFID chips is that because of the accumulated amount of information the tag is able to store, they are more vulnerable to theft and abuse. The technology has yet to be developed to encrypt the information stored in a tag so any random individual can spy on those people possessing tags. Impersonations could grow since one could copy the information from one tag and duplicate it on another and claim it as his own.
Eventually, every wall socket could become an RFID reader. This could increase surveillance and feed into a government database. This could be positive in that it could make us safer, but it could also make information about ourselves available to everyone without our knowledge. The potential for RFID technology to spiral out of control remains high, and for now, there is no one to ensure that RFID technology will be safe and free of abuse. Some argue that RFID technology is just one more step towards the government removing more of our freedoms.
Standards & Regulations
While the potential benefits of RFID technology are clear and abundant, there is a definite need to regulate the development and implementation of RFID technology. Not only must standards of regulation and operation be developed, but RFID technology raises privacy and security issues because of the passive and open nature of the technology. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has laid down numerous regulations regarding this issue. For example, all RFIDs must obtain certification from the FCC, which requires an application containing legal information about the device and the filing party. RFID products using the UHF 902-928 MHz bands have to comply with rules in Section 15.247. 16
Even though RFID has still to gain popularity in terms of usage and implementation, a number of bills have already introduced by the federal government concerning consumer privacy. Many states such as California have been working on bills that would regulate the use of RFID and also address the concerns of consumer privacy. 17
The usage and technology of RFID chips continues to grow, but along with this growth comes a sense of apprehension. RFID chips have proven themselves to be extremely useful in supply chain management, and they also have infinite possibilities in making many current processes more error-proof and safe. In addition, RFID has made it possible for humans to find pets, and for quick and easy identification of patients in medical emergencies. The main ethical concern exists, however, if all the benefits of RFID are worth the decreased privacy they will cause. Main worries include constant monitoring, hacking, possibilities of abuse, and unauthorized monitors. While RFID technology is more than capable of ensuring safety and reliability, many wonder whether the cost of safety is worth the gradual elimination of our privacy. Using the utilitarian and consequence-based ethical frameworks, we believe that this technology is worth the decrease in privacy because of the benefits it provides. However, this technology cannot be completely feasible until a system of checks and balances is implemented to maintain control.
1 Lewis, Peter. "RFID: Getting Under Your Skin?." CNNMoney.com. 5 Aug. 2004. Fortune. 4 Mar. 2007 http://money.cnn.com/2004/08/05/commentary/ontechnology/rfid/
2 RFID costs, cost of RFID implementation - FAQs." Printing Solutions for Business Improvement. ZIH Corp. 23 Feb. 2007 http://www.zebra.com/id/zebra/na/en/index/rfid/faqs/costs.html
3 Murakami, Yasujiro. "Legal Issues for Realizing Ubiquitous Information Society." The Institution of Electrical Engineers. 6 Aug. 2004. IEEE. 3 Mar. 2007
4 "Microsoft Unwraps Technology at Tech-Ed 2005 to Spark Greater Adoption of RFID." 7 June 2005. Microsoft. 1 Mar. 2007 http://www.microsoft.com/presspass/press/2005/jun05/06-07RFIDTechEdPR.mspx
5 Albrecht, Katherine, and Liz McIntyre. "Wal-Mart Hammered for Controversial Use of New Technology (RFID)." spychips.com. 20 Oct. 2005. February 25, 2007 http://www.spychips.com/protest/walmart/dallas-protest-pressrelease.html
6 Online posting. "Wal-Mart." Dotmarketer, 2005. RFid Gazette. 3 Mar. 2007 http://www.rfidgazette.org/walmart/
7 "Microsoft Unwraps Technology at Tech-Ed 2005 to Spark Greater Adoption of RFID." 7 June 2005. Microsoft. 1 Mar. 2007 http://www.microsoft.com/presspass/press/2005/jun05/06-07RFIDTechEdPR.mspx
8 Online posting. "Wal-Mart." Dotmarketer, 2005. RFid Gazette. 3 Mar. 2007 http://www.rfidgazette.org/walmart/
9 O'Connor, Mary C. "Washington State Representative Introduces RFID Legislation." 23 Feb. 2007. RFID Journal LLC. 2 Mar. 2007 http://www.rfidjournal.com/article/articleview/3066/1/1/
10 Lewis, Peter. "RFID: Getting Under Your Skin?." CNNMoncy.com. 5 Aug. 2004. Fortune. 4 Mar. 2007 http://money.cnn.com/2004/08/05/commentary/ontechnology/rfid/
11 Raza, Nadeem, Viv Bradshaw, and Matthew Hague. "Applications of RFID Technology." The Institution of Electrical Engineers. 27 Mar. 2006. IEEE. 2 Mar. 2007
http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/iel5/6723/17981/00828634.pdf?isnumber=1798 1!=&arnumber=828634&arSt=1%2F1 &ared=1%2F5&arAuthor=Raza%2C+N.%3B+Bradshaw%2C+V.%3B+Hague%2C+M
12 "RFID Technology: Changing Business Dramatically, Today and Tomorrow." ZDNet. June 2005. SAP. 1 Mar. 2007 http://i.i.com.com/cnwk.1d/html/itp/SAP-RFID_Technology_Changing_Business.pdf
13 Raza, Nadeem, Viv Bradshaw, and Matthew Hague. "Applications of RFID Technology." The Institution of Electrical Engineers. 27 Mar. 2006. IEEE. 2 Mar. 2007