Groups raise privacy concerns over plans for RFID

The Defense Department is trying to ensure that the radio-frequency ID technology that suppliers must begin using on large shipments next year will be interoperable with systems used in the private sector'and that has raised some concerns among privacy advocates.

Although the military logistics program itself does not threaten individual privacy, Katherine Albrecht, director of CASPIAN (Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering), called the mandate worrisome, because it is pushing the potentially invasive technology at a critical point in its development.

Privacy organizations worry that small, identifiable tags on consumer goods could let businesses track and gather data on individuals. These databases also could be made available to government.

'The only thing that is preventing that from happening now is that it is not yet efficient enough,' Albrecht said.

One of DOD's goals is to drive industry to improve the functionality, cost effectiveness and interoperability of RFID.

'I see the application in the defense community as breaking through some of these barriers,' said Michael Wynne, acting undersecretary for acquisition, technology and logistics.

Wynne was speaking at the RFID Industry Summit in Washington, where DOD officials met with supply chain representatives and technology vendors to discuss specifics of the DOD program. Final acquisition and technical requirements will not be available until this summer, but all DOD orders made after Oct. 1 for delivery after Jan. 1 will have to be tagged with a radio-readable device to identify goods at the pallet and case level.

A position statement by a coalition of advocacy groups, including CASPIAN and the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, lists this type of supply chain management as one of the acceptable uses for RFID, along with tracking of pharmaceuticals and toxic substances.

'At the pallet and case level I don't have a concern,' said Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. 'It's a useful tool,' as long as the technology is not pushed to individual consumer items.

But that is one of the things DOD already is experimenting with. In an effort to improve supply chain management and enable just-in-time logistics, the Defense Logistics Agency wants to be able to track some goods to their point of consumption, where items are issued to personnel. Plans are being made to test such a point-of-sale type system with the Army in South Korea, Wynne said.

Givens said she is concerned that the technology is being implemented without any public discussion or assessment of the technology or its societal impact.

'I question the rush to use the technology,' she said. 'I wonder if DOD isn't jumping in too soon. I think it has been overhyped.'

But DOD officials say they want to get in on RFID early in the adoption curve, so that they can have a hand in guiding the development of the technology.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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