Monday, June 13, 2005

RFID Tags and Privacy

Ted Koppel, in his NY Times op-ed today, writes about the threats to personal privacy from various technologies of convenience. One of his major concerns is the liberal use of RFID tags for various applications -- tags on cars to collect tolls, passport tags for remote reading and tags on pets to track them down when lost.

While some of his concerns are well-founded, I find that the threat of others is exaggerated. Personally, I see no reason to worry that much about RFID tags on cars that help track toll-bridge crossings. True, the toll collectors could find out which car was where when by looking at the logs, but it's not like all that is fundamentally private information otherwise. For example, I make liberal use of my credit card, thus allowing my bank to know exactly where I was when spending all that money throughout the month. That doesn't make me start buying things with cash instead. Moreover, I could always purchase "pre-paid" RFID tags anonymously by paying cash and use such a tag in my car. So, the tracker cannot link the tag ID to my name (although he could correlate multiple trips of mine).

On the other hand, RFID in passports seems like a bad idea. The only possible advantage of RFID over barcodes is that RFID doesn't require physical contact to be read. But there is probably no added convenience since people will still want to physically see my passport and verify that the photo on it looks like me. Worse still, there is a security headache of how to prevent snoopers from reading my RFID passport remotely. There is talk about how to cripple the set-up so that the passport is only readable at very short distances (see Ed Felten's old post here). But all this smacks of a NASA solution to a simple problem, as they might say in Primer. (The story goes that NASA did considerable R&D to develop a pen that could write in zero gravity. The Russians simply used a pencil.)


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