August 11, 2003 7:27 AM PDT
Lawmakers to probe RFID technology
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Sen. Debra Bowen, a California legislator recently on the forefront of an antispam legislation movement, is spearheading the Aug. 18 hearing, which will focus on an emerging area of technology that's known as radio frequency identification (RFID), a representative for Bowen has confirmed. The hearing, which is open to the public, will take place at the state capitol in Sacramento.
Retailers and manufacturers in the United States and Europe, including Wal-Mart Stores, have begun testing RFID systems, which use millions of special sensors to automatically detect the movement of merchandise in stores and monitor inventory in warehouses.
Proponents hail the technology as the next-generation bar code, allowing merchants and manufacturers to operate more efficiently and cut down on theft.
Privacy activists worry, however, that the unchecked use of RFID could end up trampling consumer privacy by allowing retailers to gather unprecedented amounts of information about activity in their stores and link it to customer information databases. They also worry about the possibility that companies and would-be thieves might be able to track people's personal belongings, embedded with tiny RFID microchips, after they are purchased.
"If you are walking around emanating an electric cloud of these devices wherever you go, you have no more privacy," said Katherine Albrecht, the head of Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering, a fierce critic of RFID technology.
"Every door way you walk through could be scanning you," she added.
Albrecht is scheduled to testify at Bowen's hearing, as is Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearing House, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group in San Diego.
Givens said retailers should be required to notify consumers about merchandise containing RFID chips and that they should not only disable, but destroy, the chips at the checkout counter.
"It's troubling that MIT (the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and other developers of RFID appear to have left privacy to the last minute," Givens said.
Also expected to speak at the hearing are Dan Mullen, head of the trade group Association for Automatic Identification and Data Capture Technologies, and Greg Pottie, an electrical engineering professor at the University of California at Los Angeles. Pottie is involved in the Center for Embedded Networked Sensing, a based at UCLA that's funded by the National Science Foundation.
Bowen's office has also invited key members of MIT's Auto-ID Center, a research group that has been on the forefront of RFID development, to participate in the hearing. The group has yet to accept or decline the invitation, Bowen's office said.
Bowen has not yet proposed a bill that pertains to RFID and doesn't plan to make legislation a focus at the hearing, Bowen's representative said. Rather, the hearing should mark the "beginning of a discussion of this issue among policy makers," the representative said.
Policy makers in Britain are also starting to ponder the privacy implications of RFID. A member of Britain's Parliament has submitted a motion for debate on the regulation of RFID devices when the government returns from its summer recess next month.
Tesco, a United Kingdom-based supermarket chain, has begun selling Gillette razors with RFID chips embedded in them in a trial run of the technology at its Cambridge store, according to reports. Wal-Mart had undertaken a similar test in a Boston-area store but recently decided to cancel the test. Italian clothier Benetton is also studying how it wants to use hundreds of RFID chips it has recently purchased.
Bowen, who is the chair of the legislative subcommittee on new technologies, has been an outspoken advocate of consumer privacy, helping to draft and introduce bills that would regulate face recognition technology, consumer data collected by cable and satellite television companies, and shopper loyalty cards used in grocery chains. The RFID hearing will be the subcommittee's first hearing since its formation about a year ago, Bowen's office said.