Academic journal article Rutgers Computer & Technology Law Journal

RFID and Privacy: Living in Perfect Harmony

Academic journal article Rutgers Computer & Technology Law Journal

RFID and Privacy: Living in Perfect Harmony

Article excerpt


If you have never heard of the acronym "RFID," which stands for "Radio Frequency Identification," remember it, because it will likely become a household term. If you have not seen RFID, it is not surprising, as the device can be about as small as a grain of rice, and research is already in progress to make the technology invisible to the human eye. (1) Very simply, RFID is a device that can be placed on a person, animal, or object, and the RFID device can store information. That information can be identified when the device reacts to radio waves. (2)

RFID has existed for decades and is a relatively old technology when measured by today's infinitesimal life span for technology. (3) However, RFID only became commercially viable within the last few years as RFID has been slated as a potential replacement for the UPC barcode system. (4) Like many emerging technologies, RFID has the potential to provide great economic benefits for the government, businesses, and consumers while posing a potentially serious threat to consumer privacy and personal security.

It is difficult to gauge whether RFID has gained more publicity or progress since its introduction into the commercial sector. Recent proposals by several corporate retail titans, who hope to expand RFID into nearly every facet of the retail and supply chains, have caused consumer advocates, privacy advocates, and legislators to join together in a phalanx to defeat, or at least mitigate, RFID's perceived threat to privacy. (5)

Various remedies have been proposed to allay the inherent privacy concerns surrounding RFID. The remedies range from total bans to legislative restrictions to consumer warning labels. This note will focus on using private regulation and education, current privacy laws, and limited government oversight to diminish the potential privacy and security threats of RFID. This will help ensure that the fledging RFID technology can improve our industries, businesses, and lives, while protecting our personal information.


RFID traces its roots to both the radar and the radio. (6) The "identification, friend or foe" ("IFF") transponder, which was used to identify aircraft during World War II, was the predecessor to RFID. (7) While early forms of RFID were developed, tested, and refined from the 1950s through the 1970s, it was not until 1987 when RFID saw its first major commercial use in the form of electronic highway toll collection devices. (8) RFID saw gradual increases in commercial use during the 1990s, however, RFID received an enormous boost in commercial viability as manufacturers, distributors, and retailers envisioned RFID tags eventually replacing the UPC barcode system. (9) Today, the U.S. Patent office has registered over 350 patents related to RFID. (10)


RFID belongs to a larger category of electronic identification systems known as automatic identification ("Auto-ID"). (11) Along with RFID, Auto-ID contains several types of identification technologies, such as UPC barcodes, smart cards, along with retinal, voice, finger, and other biometric recognition systems. (12)

RFID has two main components. The RFID tag or transponder, sometimes also referred to as a RFID chip, consists of a silicon microchip with an attached antenna, which both receives and transmits data. (13) The RFID tag is the data-storage device that can be attached to any object or implanted in humans and animals. (14)

The second component of the RFID system is an RFID reader. The reader emits radio waves, which are received by the RFID tag. (15) When the RFID tag receives a radio wave from the reader, it sends back the data, which is stored in the tag's memory, to the RFID reader. (16) The RFID reader then relays the collected data from the tag to a computer system installed with identification software. (17) The data stored on an RFID tag can list identification numbers, location, or specifications of the tagged product, such as price, expiration date, color, size, weight, etc. …

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