Robert Cresanti | RFID the world over

Interview with Robert Cresanti, Commerce Department undersecretary for technology

"RFID cards will need at least two antennas 'one each for USA and EU." Robert Cresanti

When Robert Cresanti, Commerce Department undersecretary for technology, visited the annual CeBIT computer show in Hanover, Germany, this year to discuss technology policy with his European Union counterparts, radio frequency identification was at the top of his agenda. A year earlier at CeBIT, Viviane Reding, the European Information Society and Media commissioner, had announced a Europe-wide review of RFID tags. Many people anticipated the review would prompt EU legislation that could potentially restrain RFID development and deployment. This year, Reding announced the results of her study, which included a proposal to address privacy and security concerns while holding off on any RFID legislation. Against that background, Cresanti arrived at CeBIT unsure of what to expect but ready to speak up at the Reding press conference if the outcome didn't forward U.S. interests. GCN spoke with him at CeBIT about these and other issues pertinent to U.S. information technology concerns.

GCN: How satisfied were you with the EU's announced stance on RFID?

Cresanti: We were afraid the EU would mandate RFID legislation and would perhaps fail to understand where the technology was going. Instead, they took a step in the direction of monitoring the technology to prevent consumer harm. This is a reasonable and rational perspective. A cautious approach to this area of technology is appropriate.

The big victory is no legislation. It is best if technology is driven by market forces rather than regulation. That's how we prefer to do it'assess first and regulate later.

GCN: Why is Commerce giving RFID so much emphasis?

Cresanti: This is a major international commerce issue. If we don't get it right, it could put all kinds of kinks in the system that would seriously hamper trade.

GCN: Does this announcement mean that EU and the U.S. are now on the same page?

Cresanti: EU and the United States are still far apart, particularly in the area of radio spectrum. This may well be insurmountable, as it is probably impossible now to have us, Europe, Russia, China and other nations alter their existing spectrum systems.

GCN: How could the spectrum problem be resolved?

Cresanti: RFID cards will need at least two antennas'one each for USA and EU. But then you have entirely different frequencies used in Russia and Asia. The problem is that as you add more and more antennas to deal with regional variations, you add cost to the RFID tag itself.

GCN: What value will RFID bring to U.S. industry?

Cresanti: Commissioner Reding discussed its use in pharmaceuticals'by adding tags to medicines, you can prevent such things as an adult dose of a blood-thinning drug being given to a young child. Thus RFID can save lives. It will bring significant savings in material and logistics costs. If you care about commerce, you care about RFID.

GCN: How long before work begins on a worldwide agreement with regard to RFID?

Cresanti: We need to begin this immediately. I plan on going to Korea; I will be coordinating closely with Commissioner Reding, who is also visiting Korea, China, Japan and Russia following the show to discuss these issues. It is vital to establish a set of international ground rules. By working closely with Commissioner Reding, I am sure we can get it right transnationally and prevent RFID dislocation.

GCN: At CeBIT, you also spoke at the CEO/Minister's Roundtable on technology and innovation. What did you tell them?

Cresanti: My primary reason for coming was economic acceleration. Why does a fast processor hit EU weeks after the U.S.A.? In my view, society in the U.S. effects change quicker than in Europe. The primary reason is that we erect fewer regulatory barriers to commerce.

GCN: German Chancellor Angela Merkel made a point during her CeBIT keynote that standards were essential in facilitating interaction between nations and in harnessing technological breakthroughs. What is your view of this?

Cresanti: Standards can be a big obstacle to innovation, and U.S. standards tend to be more flexible than those in other nations. If you try to set international human rights standards on product manufacture, no matter how well intentioned the attempt, it will suffer from a lack of ability to assess it and will ultimately impact production. Such standards can effectively block some companies out of a market overnight.

Further, it has to be realized that the U.S. government does not set standards. I supervise [the National Institute of Standards and Technology], but that body does not develop standards as such. Its approach is to define things and to only provide measurement standards to others. That enables us to regulate functionally rather than technically. You have to focus on the primary issues, such as security, as opposed to the technology itself.

GCN: Have you picked up any good ideas from your time in Europe?

Cresanti: Chancellor Merkel covered a problem in Germany with German states working with the federal government to make health-related and other forms more uniform. She plans to use technology to reduce administration by 25 percent. Back home, we have 37 different data protection laws on state books. I believe California has two or three. Thus I can appreciate the value of uniformity. But it is probably best to allow the states to experiment on legislation rather than acting federally in a way that could scuttle interstate interaction. We have to achieve a balance.

GCN: What is your opinion on the issue of skilled IT workers from abroad coming to the U.S.?

Cresanti: If we wish to maintain our technological leadership, it is very important that we have the world's best and brightest minds coming to the U.S.A.
My grandmother always said America was the land of unlimited opportunity, and I agree with that. If we don't have the ability to attract the best, then we have a serious problem.

I've discussed this issue with the Department of Homeland Security and I can appreciate that they also have a compelling need to maintain security. But if people have to get fingerprinted and have to spend a lot of time at an embassy before they can come to our country, many won't come.

And if global corporations have to schedule conferences in Vancouver, as it's too much trouble to bring their staff to the U.S.A., we have to do something about that.

GCN: What does the future hold for your agency?

Cresanti: The Department of Commerce is actually in the process of shutting down the technology administration as part of an ongoing internal reorganization. A couple of years back we had 14 people and now we are down to seven. We are actively seeking positions for the remaining personnel.

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