Thursday, January 12, 2006

Concerns about RFIDs

Toby Stevens (he credited by Kim Cameron as suggesting data rejection is the highest form of data management) was disappointed at a recent conference by one speaker's response to his question about some people's concerns about RFID tags.

"I asked the speaker what could be done to accelerate consumer acceptance of RFID. His somewhat worrying response was to refer to those of us who worry about civil liberties as 'luddites'. He went on to say that consumers who are concerned about RFID are likely to have to shop at 'special' stores for untagged products, and to pay a premium for the privilege. Apparently, they will eventually see the error of their ways because of resulting social exclusion.

This thought reminded me of Orwell's Winston Smith using a black market store to purchase a diary without it coming to Big Brother's attention. I doubt this was quite what the speaker intended. However, it got me thinking about some of the attitudes that people have when they encounter individuals who care about the social implications of technology.

The Luddites were not specifically opposed to the new mass-production technologies of their day, but were deeply upset about the impact of technology on their livelihoods. The state responded with armed repression, hangings and deportations.

Over the next few years we will pass a 'tipping point' for RFID where it rapidly escalates in use and moves towards becoming a ubiquitous technology (I believe this is known in some circles as the "oh sh*t!" point). But we're not there yet. Earlier this year I was involved in an informal survey of patient awareness of RFID. Only a few per cent of the participants had any workable understanding of what RFID is, and even fewer had considered the implications.

Until RFID tagging is commonplace, and everyone understands and accepts its use (in the same way as we now accept mobile phones or the Internet), it befalls those of us who are aware of the risks to try to find an acceptable, balanced middle way.

Moreover, it is utterly wrong to condemn anyone who questions the social implications of a new technology as a Luddite, ne'er do well, or loony. Someone has to stand up and force the debate on whether a technology such as RFID is ready for consumer use. And if a Luddite is someone who objects to the imposition of a new technology on their life without proper consideration - and democratic debate - of its social impact, then I'm proud to be a follower of Ned Ludd."

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