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The EU is developing privacy guidelines for the use of RFID (radio frequency identification) technology. A European Commission advisory group, known as a Article 29 Working Party, is conducting a public consultation on the emerging technology.

RFID tags are small microchips attached to an antenna which emit a unique serial number by radio over short distances. Miniature RFID tags can be embedded in all kinds of consumer products and scanned from between two to three metres away, revealing information about the product and (potentially) its owner. Critics say the technology could reduce or eliminate purchasing anonymity and could even threaten civil liberties. The issue becomes even more acute with plans to put RFID tags into identity cards.

The EU aims to ensure its data protection directives whenever personal data are collected using RFID technology. It wants to give guidance to manufacturers and to RFID standardisation bodies, to ensure that they develop privacy-compliant products.

RFID technology offers numerous benefits to business. It can help retailers manage their inventory, enhance consumers' shopping experience as well as allow better control access by persons to restricted areas. But it also comes with serious privacy drawbacks, an EU working paper notes.

"The ability to surreptitiously collect a variety of data all related to the same person; track individuals as they walk in public places (airports, train stations, stores); enhance profiles through the monitoring of consumer behaviour in stores; read the details of clothes and accessories worn and medicines carried by customers are all examples of uses of RFID technology that give rise to privacy concerns."

The privacy implications of RFID chips go beyond cases where unique serial numbers are linked to an identity, the EU says. "Even if the individual is not immediately and directly identified at the item information level, he can be identified at an associative level because of the possibility of identifying him without difficulty via the large mass of information surrounding him or stored about him."

Unwanted individual tracking, without a link to the identity of the data subject, also falls within the scope of the Data Protection Directive. Because of this data protection rules apply to many RFID applications, the working paper concludes.

Interested parties are invited to submit comments before 31 March 2005. ®

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EU biometric RFID scheme unworkable, says EU tech report
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External links

Working document on data protection and RFID technology (PDF)

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