RFID workshop FIfF anniversary conference

By EDRi · October 6, 2004

The RFID workshop organised during the FIfF anniversary conference (Berlin, 30 September – 3 October 2004) offered an excellent overview of the technical issues and privacy questions. Robert Gehring introduced the history of RFID, and explained passive chips were first used in World War II air-planes to detect the proximity of enemy planes. The chips were only adopted on a large scale in Europe in 1980s, as huge ear-labels on cows.

In 1999 the Auto-ID center was founded at the US MIT lab. The Center’s research was focussed on robots, how they could move in a room with unknown objects. In stead of working on image recognition for the robot, the scientists decided to equip all the furniture with RFIDs and put the intelligence in the objects. After years of large financial support by the industry, on 31 October 2003 the Auto-ID Center closed down. Now several Auto-ID labs are collaborating with EPCglobal to create new standards for data storage and data retrieval.

Gehring also gave a technical overview of the different kinds of tags, their frequency range and the distance they can be read. He remarked that the dream of some supermarkets to have an entire grocery car scanned at once wasn’t yet physically possible, because of frequency interference between the different tags. However, once the chips leave the area of logistics and just-in-time production, and enter the consumer world, he feared supermarkets and department stores would soon start to demand mandatory identification at the entrance, to be able to connect individual citizens to individual products.

Andreas Krisch from EDRI-member VIBE!AT explained what Verisign’s role was in creating the Electronic Product Code. This new identification scheme is based on a 96 bit number, allowing for 238 million manufacturers to each create 16 million different product types. In total EPC makes it possible to create 1.152 billion different codes per manufacturer. In other words, this system would allow very precise tagging of individual products. The system proposed by Verisign involves 2 kinds of databases, operated by three different players. The EPC discovery service offers a product description on the Web per code, and the Object name service routes the question about a number to the right party (the manufacturer, the wholesale distributor and the retailer). Questions about authentication are not answered yet, Krisch added. Besides, the current proposal was heavily backed by large software companies such as Microsoft, Oracle, IBM and SAP, with a very clear business need to push for expensive large-scale databases and complicated network infrastructure. But the access to data could just as easily be organised by low cost peer2peer networks, according to Krisch.

Finally Sarah Spiekermann from the internet economy group of Berlin’s Humboldt University spoke about the privacy issues surrounding RFID. She conducted a survey amongst 35 representative shoppers in Berlin what their major concerns were about the technology. She found the most poignant concern was the fear of being held responsible for objects, once RFIDs would establish a one-on-one link between a person and an object. She gave 2 examples of this fear. If you forget your sweater, and at this place later a murder is committed, the object will automatically identify you as as suspect. Or if you accidentally throw away a battery with the regular waste, you will automatically be fined by the trash depository. The second fear Spiekermann noted was the fear of technology paternalism. Many new cars for example are equipped with technology that detects whether you wear a belt, and will start to beep if you don’t. “With RFIDs everything will start to beep!” she alarmed the audience, and automatically discipline us into the desired behaviour.

FIfF conference program (in German)

RFID: Furcht vor “technologischem Paternalismus” (03.10.2004)