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The Tags are Coming

I've been spending some time thinking about the whole topic of RFID and privacy, trying to sort out some of the conflicting claims about privacy versus security and institutional convenience. Now, I'm a reasonably serious privacy advocate--I think that we do, in general, have the right to be "left alone to be our potty little selves," as G.K. Chesterton put it. With that said, I had a recent conversation that left me more certain than ever that RFID is here to stay. What makes me say that? A billion dollars a year worth of cordless drills and miter saws.

I was at the annual meeting of the National Association of Homebuilders (NAHB) in Orlando when I ran across the Bosch Tool booth. In the middle of demonstrations of their latest compound miter saws (very nice tools) and electronic protractors (very cool if you're installing crown moulding), they were showing ToolWatch, third-party software that works with RFID tags implanted in power tools to keep track of when they enter and leave warehouses and job sites. According to the folks at Bosch, something like a billion dollars a year in tools walk away from jobs sites, never to be seen (by the contractors) again. That number is augmented by the tools that are purchased unnecessarily because no one knows to which job site a rotary hammer or nail gun has been sent.

Contractors have legitimate business concerns regarding stolen tools, and RFID seems to offer a reasonable attempt to slow the loss. Bosch recognizes that these concerns are sufficiently significant to drive tool purchases, so they are placing the tags inside tools at a price ranging from free to $5, depending on the tools and circumstances. Perhaps because the NAHB is made up of contractors, rather than framing carpenters, I didn't hear anyone decrying the loss of privacy that these RFID tags will carry along with the tool's serial number.

There are legitimate concerns about privacy and security attached to many on-going and proposed RFID deployments. We need to work hard to address the concerns, and should be more aggressive at encrypting sensitive information contained in the tags. The important issue, though, is that we do have to come up with solutions, because the economics of deployment are just too great to ignore. There are RFID tags in our future--let's just make that their deployment is intelligent and secure.

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