Tech Tools: Companies Look For Ways To Protect Privacy - InformationWeek

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2/12/2004
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Tech Tools: Companies Look For Ways To Protect Privacy

A number of efforts are under way to address radio-frequency identification privacy concerns through technology.

Today, the biggest technical deterrent to widespread product-tracking, even if chips were to be placed on individual items, is distance. Tag readers aren't very powerful or accurate at more than a few feet. But most technologists expect that to quickly improve.

One possible tool would kill the RFID tags at checkout, such as one the retailer Metro Group has at its Extra Future Store in Rheinberg, Germany. Metro execs aren't sure how popular the tool will be, however, since some customers might want to keep tags active if information on them is needed for warranties or if they want to track expiration dates on food. Critics point out that waiting in line at a kill-tag station eats up the time-saving benefit RFID is supposed to deliver.

Intel researcher Kenneth Fishkin co-authored a paper on enhancing RFID privacy via antenna energy analysis for MIT's RFID Privacy Workshop in November. The idea is that tags could be engineered to measure the proximity of a reading device by its energy output. Distance in this case would go toward establishing trust. Less-trusted inquires might be answered with less information.

Ari Juels at RSA Laboratories says his company plans a prototype soon of an RFID-blocker tag, which would prevent other nearby tags from being read. Another possibility under consideration is the use of pseudonyms. Eavesdroppers would thereby see RFID tags as having multiple identities. Critics note that this places the burden on the customer and could even be banned by some stores.

Michelle Dennedy, Sun Microsystems' chief privacy officer, points to her company's recent acquisition of Waveset Technologies and the role identity-management technology will have on RFID applications. Among them: deprovisioning or disabling a radio tag based on certain criteria such as an expiration date or upon checkout.

Illustration by Campbell Laird

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