From cattle tracking to cross-border security, RFID has a number of potential uses in government. But radio frequency identification has been slow to take off — at least in Canada — thanks to privacy concerns and a lack of adoption of global standards. Other governments, such as Australia, Germany and the U.K, are researching and testing new applications, while Canada is taking a wait-and-see approach.Some industry observers think we should be doing more. “The Canadian government is not involved and should be involved, and should be looking at what other governments are doing — driving some pilots, talking to suppliers and moving forward,” says Art Smith, president and CEO of EPCglobal Canada, a not-for-profit standards organization in Toronto.
Still in initial phases
Down the road, he expects RFID to be as pervasive as the Internet. “We’re only at the first stage of what’s likely to be a 20-year technology cycle,” he says. “We’ve just produced the first Generation 2 standard. What it’s going to look like in Generation 10 is going to be completely different.”
One of the biggest opportunities for RFID in the public sector is asset and supply chain management. The U.S. Department of Defense, for example, deals with about 60,000 suppliers, and it’s using RFID to manage its supply chain.
RFID also has potential uses for homeland and cross-border security, as well as health care, such as tracking counterfeit pharmaceutical drugs. Singapore is using RFID in its public libraries for self-checkout and book inventory management, while Australia is using RFID temperature chips to confirm if imported pork has stayed within a certain temperature range.
Canada has taken a lead in developing a cattle-tracking system using RFID tags that will make it easier to track diseases such as mad cow. Smith would like to see a structure in place — much like Canada Health Infoway — to promote a national traceability solution, which would require developing prototypes, testing for interoperability and adopting global standards.
Some applications, however, have met with controversy. RFID-enabled passports are being explored in Europe and Asia, while the U.S. State Department has plans to embed RFID chips in all new passports. Privacy advocates worry that unauthorized personnel — from identity thieves to terrorists — could skim the data using their own RFID readers.
The State Department has responded by announcing that passports will have a metallic lining to prevent this from happening.
“The existing RFID uses in the public sector are primarily for efficient inventory management and access control, and both of those are excellent uses for RFID,” says Ann Cavoukian, Ontario’s Information and Privacy Commissioner. “They don’t have access to any personal information.”
The risk arises when personal identifiers are linked to whatever activities the RFID is being used for, although that’s unlikely, she adds. But, long term, there are issues to be aware of — and avoided. Privacy could be infringed upon if the federal government ever came out with an RFID-enabled national identification card. “That would mean not only are your personal identifiers on this ID card, but your activities could be tracked by readers all across the country — where you go, who you see,” she says. “The possibility for surveillance could potentially be very real.”
In libraries, RFID is a useful tool for book inventory management, but privacy could be compromised if personal identifiers are attached to books. If you’re a separate schoolteacher with certain religious practices, for example, and you read a book that is considered unacceptable to your employer, it could affect your job. “The thought that the state or your employer would have access to that information is really offensive,” says Cavoukian. “It can really dovetail into unintended consequences.”
Policies are needed to safeguard citizens from the collection and use of personal information in both the public and private sectors. Industry Canada has been a leader in intellectual property rights and digital signatures, says Smith, but is lagging behind when it comes to RFID. “We have to look at RFID policy from the same perspective,” he says.

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