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RFID: There's Nothing To Fear Except Fear Itself

May 4, 2006
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In remarks at the 16th Annual Computers, Freedom and Privacy Conference (May 4, 2006, Washington, DC) ITIF President Rob Atkinson debated anti-RFID advocate Katherine Albrecht and head of Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering and author of the anti-RFID book Spychips. Atkinson argued that Albrecht largely dismissed the benefits of radio frequency identification devices (RFID) and vastly overstated the risks and costs. In contrast, there are significant potential benefits of RFID technologies. RFID could lower costs in the supply chain; lead to faster time to shelves for new products and enable stores to stock better the products consumers want; facilitate convenient self-service checkout; reduce lost luggage in airports; protect the prescription drug supply; and offer a host of other benefits.

Not only will the benefits from widespread deployment of RFID will be large, but the fears that Katherine Albrecht and other RFID-opponents are trying to whip up are simply not justified. There are three main reasons why: First, many of the arguments made against RFID could just as easily be made about existing technologies and systems in widespread use today, and in that sense are much ado about nothing. Second, RFID opponents try to create fear by making it sound as if all sorts of truly horrible things will happen just because they potentially could. But the key point is that “could” is not the same as “will” or “would.” It is true that some, but certainly not most, of these worst-case scenario “coulds” are possible. It is possible, as Katherine warns, that the government could forcibly implant RFID chips in our bodies. But only the most fearful among us actually believe this will happen. In short, RFID promises considerable benefits and the risks to privacy are minimal.