RFID, radio frequency identification, is one of those topics that come and go in the news. Unless you’re working with supply chains on a daily basis, RFID may not be at the top of your IT watch list. Well, there are some forces in motion right now that may have an impact on just how pervasive RFID technology will be in the years ahead.
IndustryWeek just reported that China alone is plunking down nearly $2 billion on RFID technology in 2007 — out of a global $5 billion spent on RFID. This is significant in that economy of scale kicks in, where more business equals lower prices as the technology becomes commoditized. The big barrier for widespread RFID usage up until this point has been cost (and reliability, to some degree — another issue that tends to be worked out as business picks up). China’s RFID ambitions may not drive the price of passive chips all the way down to the magic 5-cent barrier, but it’ll certainly help.
Indeed, as a technology in itself, RFID has performed well and has definite business value. Unfortunately, it also comes with a certain stigma, especially when the discussion moves from tagging shipping containers and onto tagging people. You’ve probably heard the benefits of human tagging — hospitals can get immediate medical information from an unconscious patient etc. — but several customer advocates and interest groups have taken offense at the invasion of privacy and potential for abuse.
There is currently a bill underway making California the third state to ban involuntary RFID tagging of humans. The word “involuntary” sounds pretty reassuring, right? However, as digital media law expert Jonathan Handel noted:
The bill only applies to employers and employees. That leaves open a host of other scenarios. One day soon, no doubt, prisoners will be required to be chipped as a condition of parole, probation or house arrest [...] registered sex offenders, [then] illegal aliens, welfare recipients, parents concerned with their kids’ safety…
Granted, it’s quite a leap from China’s Olympic Games preparation to parents implanting their kids with RFID tags, but let’s face it: The rise of RFID in commercial settings will inevitably lead to increased options for usage in non-commercial settings. And the baggage that comes with that side of RFID, inevitably impacts the other side as politics, fear and confusion around a new technology tends to muddle the water for all players involved. Let’s hope the market is wise enough to play it safe, ethically and otherwise, in the years ahead.