Patrick Burns is a Senior Manager in Verisign’s Corporate Communications Group.
What steps should companies exploring item-level RFID programs take to protect their customers from perceived or actual violations of privacy?
One of the things that early developers of RFID have already discovered is that information about products is stored much better on a network than on RFID tags themselves. A network not only offers more space for storing information, but also provides a much more efficient means for sharing that information. Sharing dynamic product information is critical to lowering the economic costs of moving products throughout the supply chain. As a provider of Internet infrastructure services, VeriSign brings the power of a large, standards-based network to enable the sharing of dynamic supply chain information.
Regarding item level tagging, the industry is really not at that point yet because of the cost of tags. Right now, most tagging is done at the pallet level. However, you’re seeing companies and individuals alike work to address any concerns associated with privacy. VeriSign, of course, is an Internet infrastructure services company providing a network service for electronic product codes. Companies whose consumers are concerned about privacy, however, have a vested interest in educating those consumers and working with them to alleviate their concerns. You’re seeing a lot of that dialogue taking place right now. Some companies have already brought solutions to market that will deactivate RFID tags at the point of sale. Finally, it’s important to remember that even though RFID technology doesn’t require a line of sight for reading (as bar code readers require) it is a technology that is fairly limited by distance and requires a very close proximity between tag and reader.
Should there be federal legislation limiting the use of RFID technology and the information it is able to gather?
That’s a very general question and one that’s better answered by legislators. However, what everyone clearly understands is that technology itself does not stand still. People are always engaged in finding ways to help technology improve their lives and make their jobs and personal lives more efficient. That’s part of human ingenuity and society’s development that makes our lives easier and more efficient. RFID technology has been around for decades, but its use in improving such things as the supply chain is now available on a global scale. That’s possible because of this tremendously efficient, open, and low-cost communications system we have called the Internet. In fact, RFID technology is already being used around the world in a myriad of creative ways. Below are just a very few of those:
- San Francisco airport is using RFID tags to track and manage bags. Tagging bags on international flights, the airport makes sure that the bags have gone through all the right security steps.
- London Heathrow Airport uses disposable RFID tags with customer baggage. Smart tags allow the airport to identify and track individual baggage as it moves through the airport.
- OP Prostejov, a Czech clothing company, uses RFID tags to track clothing items from the point of manufacture to the point of sale, even to the extent of ensuring that trousers and jackets are correctly paired.
- In Vejle, Denmark, the main bus terminal has placed RFID tags on the front bumper of each bus. By enabling accurate tracking, the system provides passengers with real-time bus information and supports the allocation of buses to platforms.
- Governments around the world, of course, track livestock through the use of RFID tags, enabling them to protect and secure livestock and detect sick and disabled animals.
What factors have contributed to any of the news media’s negative portrayals of RFID technology?
We haven’t seen a lot of negative portrayal of RFID technology. We have seen a lot of reporters seeking to understand the various uses and applications of RFID technology. It’s a big subject and a new subject for most of them. Although RFID technology has been around for decades, its use in commercial applications is fairly recent. Of course, there are very well-known applications of RFID technology such as automated highway toll collections and livestock tracking. For the most part, however, RFID applications at the commercial level have not become widespread yet, so there’s a general lack of knowledge regarding its benefits.
At VeriSign, we’re involved with RFID technology and its application with electronic product codes. We see the integration of RFID, electronic product codes, and the Internet as very similar to the development of the Internet and various Internet-based applications around ten or twelve years ago. Among other things, VeriSign is beginning to show companies how RFID technology and Electronic Product Codes can be used across large, open, standards-based networks to provide track and trace capabilities, help identify counterfeited goods, and find and replace perishable goods. These kinds of applications help manufacturers, distributors, and retailers alike, by improving efficiencies throughout the supply chain. Consumers, in turn, stand to benefit from these efficiencies in the form of safer products such as prescription drugs, more availability, and lower prices. Companies that have to move merchandise through the supply chain are already familiar with the potential benefits RFID technology can bring to them. But, as with any new application of technology there’s a substantial period of education and learning that has to take place. That’s what you’re seeing now. Remember that ten or twelve years ago, nobody dreamed of the efficiencies that Web browsers, payment systems, and security technologies would bring to the Internet.