Fear of spy chips overstated: expert

They envision a world in which everything we own from the clothes we wear to the bag of chips we wolf down in front of the TV to the phones we always carry with us, are embedded with RFID chips that can be surreptitiously scanned from afar, giving corporations and governments a chance to track our every movement and action.

Bob Moroz, the president of Toronto-based RFID Canada, thinks such fears are born out of a misunderstanding of how RFID technology actually works. Most applications – such as tracking products through a supply chain – are closed loop, and privacy simply isn’t a concern, he said. Even when item-level RFID – now a rarity – becomes widely adopted, the laws of physics will prevent such nightmarish visions from coming to pass, he said. “It’s very hard to read an RFID tag that’s passive, which is operated in near-field. The vision of people driving down the street and reading through your walls what you have can’t be done.”

Ontario’s privacy commissioner Ann Cavoukian hopes to allay such fears before they become widespread by encouraging companies to follow a set of guidelines her office has set up.

Cavoukian wants first and foremost to assure consumers that item-level tracking is not yet happening commercially in Canada and is likely years away. But she also wants to set out provisions for such eventualities. She encourages companies using RFID tags to be forthright with customers and let them know up front if there are any tags in the products they are purchasing.

She’s also excited about the possibilities created by new technology such as the prototype Clipped Tags recently developed by IBM, which will allow consumers to discard or disable tags. Consumers will also be able to reactivate tags if desired. The ability to reactive a device would make it easier for consumers to return products or for companies to handle recalls on items, she said.

Though she admits that the technology is currently cost prohibitive, she hopes that by the time item-level RFID becomes more commonplace, the price for such technology will drop.

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