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EU opens public consultation on RFID

Attempt to allay 'Big Brother' fears

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Fears about new Radio Frequency Identification technology (RFID), have prompted the EU to open a public consultation process.

The commission has been holding discussions with government agencies and the private sector since March based on general themes of standardising RFID frequencies and formats across Europe, but now the emphasis has changed slightly to inform citizens on how the technology can improve quality of life without encroaching on individual privacy issues. With this in mind, the commission has initiated an online public consultation on its 'Your Voice in Europe' website.

Radio Frequency Identification is a way of storing information on a small tag that communicates via radio frequencies with an electronic reader. It has been applied to hundreds of applications as diverse as tracking migratory birds, embedding information in a passport, to pictures in an art gallery. It does not need line of sight to operate and its distance range depends on the strength of the receiver.

"We need to build a society-wide consensus on the future of RFID. We need to ensure that RFID technology delivers on its economic potential and to create the right opportunities for its use for the wider public good, while ensuring that citizens remain in control of their data," EU Commissioner for the Information Society and Media Viviane Reding said.

She added that the commission intends to assume these twin responsibilities in December this year.

A source within the supply chain industry - one of the main applications for RFID - said Ireland was slightly lagging behind other countries because a frequency range for RFID has not yet been set aside by ComReg. However, the same source added he was confident ComReg would specify the 865MHz to 868MHz frequency range this autumn.

Due to a prior commitment the ComReg spokesman dealing with spectrum issues was not available to speak with ENN at the time of publication.

The European Commission has until now been primarily concerned with avoiding a fragmented approach to RFID across the member states. It has concentrated on issues of interoperability, international compatibility, radio spectrum allocation, and the future of RFID standards.

GS1 Ireland specialises in RFID and bar-coding technologies, and its business development manager, Diego Solorzano, agreed that the European Union's approach to allaying fears about the technology was timely.

"The privacy issue is a big thing and people need to be informed to avoid misconceptions," he said. Soloranzo told ENN that a major misconception was that RFID tags will be attached to every product bought in supermarkets and that purchases could be tracked and consumer privacy interfered with. He said RFID tags were normally attached to goods at the pallet level and rarely to individual items.

"It's the same with any new technology, take genetically modified foods, people tend to think the worst because of little knowledge."

Solorzano said another concern he had come across was that people were worried about radiation from RFID chips embedded in goods or credit cards.

"There's less radiation from RFID readers and tags then from a mobile phone placed against your ear. Therefore, it's important that the EU gets that information out there," he said.

Digital Rights Ireland chairman TJ McIntyre told ENN the European Convention on Human Rights enshrined the right to privacy, and with regard to any new technology he said "it is important that steps are taken to protect that."

Copyright © 2006, ENN

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