RFID's and your privacy wrt libraries

This afternoon I had an interesting conversation with a gentleman on a train. He started it with a simple question: “What can you tell me about R.F.I.D. in 25 words or less?”. It turned out that my answer contained just the things he was looking for. I was able to define RFID, name the first big implementer, and mention the fact that there are privacy issues surrounding the technology. The rest of the time he spent trying to convince me that RFID's are particularly dangerous in the context of a public library.

The gist of his argument was that RFIDs tied to library books would enable an agent of Big Brother to discreetly profile people based on what they read. Specifically, two examples he cited were “a mosque” and “an airport”. What makes a library book so special is the fact that the RFID cannot be defeated if you intend to be able to return the book since this is what the library would use for tracking. Apparently there are libraries that already do this today.

Frankly, this is not something I can get all worked up over. What concerns him is government stomping on civil liberties and while its a very valid concern, I think one needs to consider the bigger picture. It is the role of the government to provide protection for its citizens and for that service, I feel it is OK to give up a little privacy.

To put this in perspective, I would not mind too much if something I did caused some database to profile me as “dangerous” and set the government's eye on me. I put two caveats on that statement: the reason must be well documented and I must not be harassed (i.e. the fact that I've been “classified” should not be exposed in any fashion to any non-law enforcement agency and even then be strictly on a “need to know” basis). The first ensures accountability and the second ensures that I remain innocent until proven otherwise.

For example, I think it would be OK if an undercover air Marshall were to take the seat next to me on the plane. I would NOT think it OK if I was simply not allowed on the plane. I would also not think it OK if IRS suddenly also took an interest in me. In the same vein, I should only ever be detained if there was conclusive evidence to justify that, and I there must be severe penalties for any abuse of such system by government or law enforcement agencies (I am talking serious jail time, not a slap on a wrist).

Back to RFIDs: I think its just another technology that will impinge on privacy a little and offer some tangible benefits in return. No doubt it will spawn a yet another set of social issues. The alarmists will throw this scenario at you: “you walk into a bar, walk by a man or a woman, touch a button on your PDA, and you've got their whole wardrobe listed out by brand and size. (think panty type and bra sizes)”. Perhaps. But consider this scenario: you've “fried” the RFID's on your clothing with a small device and solved that problem. Instead you picked up an RFID card, or bracelet, or coin, or whatever, from your favorite dating agency. Now, the person of the opposite (or same, whatever matters to you) sex walks by, checks you out discreetly, and either strikes a conversation or keeps going. Would that really be so bad?

Ultimately the market will decide appropriate uses, but I think it’s premature to condemn this technology as the next big threat to privacy.


This is the obligatory intro post.