Last week I attended a really interesting forum on RFID hosted by SAP and the National Chamber Foundation in Washington DC. The presentations were categorised into RFID and Food and Drug Safety; RFID and Pandemic Preparedness; RFID and Security.
One presentation that got my attention was from Dow which describes how they deploy RFID extensively to manage security and public safety up and down the supply chain. This graphic on Dow’s approach to integrated security management in the chemical industry is extraordinary in it’s detail. David Nabarro from UNDP also expounded on the value of RFID for disaster preparedness and response when relief efforts needs to be mounted and distributed quickly without the usual bottleneck delays at point of entry when imported goods and personell have to be clearly identified and cleared through customs quickly.
Last year I had the opportunity to visit the Germany based retailer Metro Group’s Future Store near Cologne as well their exhibit at Cebit and the use of RFID is really amazing to see. You can view Metro Group’s video demo below on YouTube and in this video on their own website:
One of the toughest critics of the use of RFID and the threat to personal liberties is Katherine Albrecht and you can find her book here. You can also find on You Tube a series of videos on this topic which she has also produced.
The flipside of privacy, however, is transparency which too has an important social function. RFID already is widely used in western health care but it seems to me it has great potential to help control corruption associated with the health care sector more globally and assure the provenance of safety critical supplies. Last year’s Transparency International Annual report focused on the problem of health care and corruption. I recommend reading it, it is simply shocking and heartbreaking. TI record patient deaths in Nigeria when water was substituted for adrenaline and in Italy when faulty valves are implanted — all because of corruption along the supply chain. In this report from AccountAbility, Chris Tuppen, Head of Sustainable Development and Accountability at BT, argues that RFID technology with it’s capability to track the provenance of a finished good from all stages of composition, can and should be used for ethical assurance purposes. But in this later report Accountability ask the more challenging question regarding transparency: for whom? Are citizens to be more transparent and accountable to institutions or vice versa?
There are definitely personal privacy issues associated with RFID that need to be managed and regulated carefully. Personally I think the key thing is that people should know to the full extent possible when their activities are being tracked and have an opportunity to trade their privacy in return for defined benefits such as convenience or loyalty rewards. This is what we have done for years already even without RFID, for example frequently flyer programmes. Web 2.0 is really no different – as an information worker I am now out here in public space selectively trading some professional privacy in return for a trade in insights that may help me to do my job better. Interestingly, one member of the audience at this event unfavourably compared Facebook, asserting that minors are enticed to unwittingly surrender their privacy with little known benefit in return.
We can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube and so I suspect we will be learning how to benefit and live with these technologies for a long time to come.