July 15, 2004, 8:29 AM — A U.S. law enforcing privacy rules for RFID (radio frequency identification) isn't needed because companies experimenting with the technology are committed to protecting privacy, two such corporations told a U.S. House subcommittee Wednesday.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc. continues to move forward with plans for case- and pallet-level tagging of products with RFID chips, but most item-level tagging, where individual products are identified with RFID chips, is about 10 years away, Linda Dillman, executive vice president and chief information officer of Wal-Mart, told the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection.
But others in the hearing noted Wal-Mart conducted product tests on lipstick in an Oklahoma store in early 2003. Representative Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat, questioned if consumers were adequately warned of the lipstick tests. With the potential to use RFID chips in passports and other government identification, as well as consumer products such as clothing, the misuse of RFID tracking raises "seriously Orwellian concerns," she said.
"Soon we could have Big Brother and big business tuning into the same frequency, where not only will they know where you are, but what you're wearing," Schakowsky added.
Privacy advocates told the committee legislation is needed to protect consumers from potential uses of RFID. Three privacy advocates testifying Wednesday offered few current examples of privacy concerns caused by RFID, but as the range of RFID scanning grows beyond the current 10 to 20 feet (305 to 610 centimeters), RFID could allow corporations and governments to track people's movements and purchases, they said. RFID uses small computer chips and antennas that are integrated into a paper or plastic label. Those chips can then be read by an electronic scanner.
A United Nations-affiliated group, the International Civil Aviation Organization, is already developing global standards for passports that include RFID chips, with the group looking for a chip that could be read up to a meter away, said Barry Steinhardt, director of the Technology and Liberty Program for the American Civil Liberties Union. In the hands of a dictatorial government, RFID-chipped passports or other identification could be used to track visitors to the country or identify attendees of a political rally, Steinhardt said.
Such uses of RFID could create "a whole new surveillance regime," Steinhardt added.