House Commerce Subcommittee Holds Hearing on RFID Technology

July 14, 2004. The House Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection held a hearing titled "Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) Technology: What the Future Holds for Commerce, Security, and the Consumer".

Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX), the Chairman of the full Committee, stated that "RFID technology works by providing a frequency-emitting tag to a product that can be detected with its range by receivers. The private sector is is already embracing the technology for uses in supply chain management." He also reviewed its potential uses for national defense and homeland security.

Sanjay Sarma of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) explained the technology, and gave a demonstration, particularly to show the limited range of the technology, and how objects, such as a person's hand, can interfere with reception of the tag's signal.

"RFID is a way of lubricating the supply chain," said Sarma, "and keeping track of things in the supply chain."

Rep. Barton added that "the same benefits that improve our standard of living also trigger concerns regarding privacy. Similar to the application of other technologies that have the potential to be misused, RFID technology will present policy considerations as it develops and becomes more prevalent in our lives. But before we jump to conclusions about Orwellian applications, this Committee will continue to examine this technology carefully to determine the facts."

Rep. Barton said that there may be more hearings.

Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-FL), the Chairman of the Subcommittee, presided at this hearing. He stated that "One possible application of this technology involves using readers at a store checkout -- consumers place tagged items in their shopping cart, pass through the checkout where the items are read, and their accounts are automatically updated without waiting in line ... However, this point of sale application raises privacy issues and these questions. Will I be able to disable or remove the tag? What happens to the data harvested from my purchase? How secure is that data, and what prevents third parties from accessing and misusing that information?"

Rep. Janice Schakowsky (D-IL), the ranking Democrat on the Subcommittee, offered the strongest criticism of RFID. She said that RFID technology could be used for inventory management, but "what we are also hearing about, however, are potentially serious Orwellian possibilities of RFID technology  Because of the flexibility of RFID, suppliers and retailers are exploring the possibility of using RFID chips, not only on shipping crates and pallets, but on individual items as well. It is possible to have RFID tags in everything from individual pieces of clothing, as Benetton proposed, to tanks, as the Defense Department is already doing. It has also been quietly suggested, as Mr. Steinhardt from the ACLU will detail in his testimony, that RFID tags could be used in travel documents like passports."

Rep. Jan SchakowskyRep. Schakowsky (at right) warned that "Soon we could have Big Brother and Big Business tuning to the same frequency. Where, not only will they know where you are, but what you are wearing. RFID tags can be as small as a grain of sand. They can be hidden in products and documents without one's knowledge. This raises significant privacy concerns."

She did, however, concede that there are beneficial uses, such as inventory management, automatic payment of highway tolls, smartcard payments for public transportation, and preventing sale of counterfeit pharmaceuticals.

Rep. Ted Strickland (D-OH) advocated the beneficial uses of RFID technology in fighting counterfeiting and abuse of prescription drugs. He also argued, as did Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), that the Congress faces similar issues when it examines both RFID technology and spyware technology.

The Subcommittee heard testimony from representatives of companies that are providing or using RFID technology:  Linda Dillman (Wal-Mart), Sandra Hughes (Procter & Gamble), William Galione (Philips Semiconductors), and Brian Matthews (VeriSign). They testified regarding potential uses of the technology, including inventory management, speeding checkout at retail establishments, reducing the sale of counterfeit drugs, and assisting in product recalls.

The Subcommittee also heard from John Molloy, an Irishman who explained how his company, ViaTrace, is using RFID tags affixed to the ears of cows, and electronic databases, to keep track of herds, and thereby better protect the safety of the food supply in Europe.

The Subcommittee also heard from representatives of three interest groups who addressed privacy implications of RFID technology.

Paula Bruening of the Center for Democracy and Technology wrote in her prepared testimony [9 pages in PDF] that "There are many possible applications of RFID that do not pose major privacy concerns. But to the extent that RFID devices can be linked to personally identifiable information, RFID raises important privacy questions. In an era of widespread collection of data about individuals, RFID heightens concerns about the ability of businesses and government using these technologies to create deep, rich profiles about people and their travels, lifestyles, interests and activities."

She advocated passage of "technology neutral baseline privacy legislation", but not legislation specific to RFID technology.

CÚdric Laurant of the Electronic Privacy Information Center testified that RFID specific legislation should be enacted to protect the privacy of individuals. He wrote in his prepared testimony that "Legislation should protect consumers from improper use and sharing of data in both the public and the private sector. The legislation would address all forms of RFID-based services, from travel security to employee monitoring, child tracking and amusement park patron management. Congress should rule on legislation specifically targeting the use of RFID in the retail sector and require clear labeling and easy removal of item-level RFID tagging on individual consumer products. Clear labeling and easy removal of tags will ensure that consumers receive proper notice of RFID systems and are able to confidently exercise their choice whether or not to go home with live RFID tags in the products they own."

Barry Steinhardt of the American Civil Liberties Union focused (ACLU) argued that the "most troubling of all are proposals to incorporate RFID tags into government identification documents" such as passports.

He offered this scenario. "RFIDs would allow for convenient, at a distance verification of ID. RFID-tagged IDs could be secretly read right through a wallet, pocket, backpack, or purse by anyone with the appropriate reader device, including marketers, identity thieves, pickpockets, oppressive governments, and others. Retailers might add RFID readers to find out exactly who is browsing their aisles, gawking at their window displays from the sidewalk -- or passing by without looking. Pocket ID readers could be used by government agents to sweep up the identities of everyone at a political meeting, protest march, or Islamic prayer service. A network of automated RFID listening posts on the sidewalks and roads could even reveal the location of all people in the U.S. at all times."