April 2, 2007 3:38 PM PDT

E.U. official: Now isn't time for RFID regulations

WASHINGTON--The European Commission may have decided against imposing new rules on radio frequency identification tags for now, but a top official warned Monday that regulations are likely if future uses of the technology don't protect fundamental privacy rights.

Gerald Santucci, head of the European Commission unit whose domain includes RFID issues, said he feared that rushing to place restrictions on industries hoping to use the technology would choke its potentially valuable application in health care, business, transportation and other realms.

But if regulators deem that widespread RFID use is insufficiently safe, secure and privacy-preserving, then "Mrs. Reding will have no other option but to trigger legislation," Santucci told participants at a luncheon discussion here organized by the law firm McKenna Long & Aldridge.

He was referring to a recent announcement by commissioner Viviane Reding, whose group focuses on "information society and media." She said that instead of issuing regulations, the commission plans to develop a set of guidelines--a "soft law," by Santucci's characterization--by year's end to lay out its expectations on issues like privacy and security. To get there, it plans to consult over the next several months with a to-be-named group of 25 to 30 people representing all facets of the RFID debate. (The European Commission is the European Union's executive arm and is composed of 27 commissioners, one from each member nation.)

By the close of 2008, the commission plans to reevaluate whether legislation is necessary. It's unclear how restrictive any potential rules would be.

That option is preferable for now because it typically takes as many as three years for new laws to gain final passage at the commission, and by then, RFID-specific rules may already be out of date, Santucci said. He indicated that even if the commission does decide it needs to enact new laws, they would cover more than just RFID.

Advocates of RFID, which broadcasts a unique ID through radio frequencies, argue that the technology affords myriad benefits, such as adding precision to medical operating rooms, allowing retailers to track inventory more closely, and helping doctors to monitor elderly or other homebound patients from afar.

But the idea of unfettered use has attracted a fair amount of outcry from privacy groups concerned about the potential for secret tracking, unauthorized collection of information and other abuses. Those fears have prompted a number of state legislatures to propose laws aimed at restricting, or in some cases outlawing, RFID use. (Some politicians on Capitol Hill, by contrast, formed a working group last year focused on exploring how the tiny chips might improve their constituents' quality of life.)

That sentiment is no different in Europe. More than two-thirds of the people who expressed their views to the commission during a recent public comment period on RFID said they had strong convictions against the chips' use, Santucci said.

Santucci attributed what he called a "problem of trust" to a lack of understanding about how the technology works. He suggested that governments and industry worldwide should build privacy protections into their RFID use, but they also must present a unified message about "why RFID is something that can add a lot to improve (citizens') quality of life."

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