Ubiquitous Computing: RFID and Information Goods

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The Clinic worked on a general technology assessment of RFID technology and its potential risk toward individual privacy.

Manufacturers, retailers, and libraries across the nation are interested in installing a new technology called Radio Frequency Identification to help them manage their inventories. However, using RFID may make it easy to invade personal privacy by collecting facts about individual purchase, reading, video rental, and book borrowing habits. The technology consists of a small digital label which is attached to products. The label contains information which is read wirelessly by devices, usually installed at check-out counters and security gates. These devices are also available for purchase by members of the public. The kind of information on the labels varies widely depending on the application. RFID tags are becoming increasingly inexpensive. Meanwhile, labeling and interoperability standards are emerging. Ubiquitous tagging of items sold and regular reading of those tags throughout society is becoming increasingly likely.

This past year, the Samuelson Clinic has been involved in a general technology assessment of RFID technology and its potential risk toward individual privacy. One part of our examination focused particularly on the labeling of books, CDs, and DVDs with RFID. These information goods evoke strong expectations of privacy which are rooted in the cultures of the institutions that provide them, as well as legal policy.

The Clinic developed an evaluation framework for library RFID vendor proposals. The Berkeley Public Library (BPL) used this document to select an RFID system sensitive to privacy requirements. Later the Clinic developed guidelines for mitigating some of these threats, which we have refined into a set of best practices.

The Clinic also collaborated with graduate researchers and professors from the UC Berkeley Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science to draft an article describing best practices and technical solutions for RFID. The article is pending publication.

Most recently, the Clinic participated in a Federal Trade Commission workshop dealing with RFID and privacy. Director of the Clinic, Deirdre Mulligan, spoke concerning RFID and information goods, and called for the FTC to define what business practices are considered “unfair” and “deceptive” with respect to tagging books, music, and video. Future plans for work include a survey of library and bookstore patrons to learn about their knowledge and views concerning RFID and privacy.

Administrative and Regulatory Filings


Oct 28, 2004

Radio Frequency ID Privacy with Information Goods

By Nathan Good, David Molnar, Jennifer M. Urban, Elizabeth Miles, Laura Quilter, and David Wagner

May 14, 2004

Radio Frequency Identification and Privacy with Information Goods (Draft Submission)

By Nathan Good, John Han, Elizabeth Miles, David Molnar, Deirdre Mulligan, Laura Quilter, Jennifer Urban, David Wagner