Who’s Afraid Of RFID?

by on September 3, 2004 · 4 comments

Techdirt has a blurb on the inevitability of RFID technology and another on why that’s a good thing, making the point, as Declan McCullagh does here, that a precautionary approach to technological innovation can deprive consumers, and society in general, of tremendous benefits. In other words, the mere possibility of some harm resulting from the development or widespread use of a technology should not preclude that development or use. Rather, a comparison of potential costs and benefits is required. As Declan points out, the potential benefits of RFID are tremendous while the costs, though not completely negligible, are easily managed through technological safeguards and consumer-driven accountability.


Of course try telling that to the folks at CASPIAN, whose spychips.com site (the name says it all) puts them squarely in the luddite/technophobe camp. What CASPIAN fails to realize is that privacy means different things to different people and that just because their privacy threshold is very high doesn’t mean that everyone else should have to live with that level.
Rather, privacy, like everything else, is about tradeoffs. If you want more of a good or service, you go out and buy it, but this means that you have less to spend on something else. If you are comfortable with less of a thing, you sell it or refrain from buying more. You personally bear the cost or receive the benefit of your choice. Groups like CASPIAN find tradeoffs intolerable. Instead, they propose that everyone else, regardless whether they want to, subsidize their high privacy preference by foregoing the many benefits that personal information trading can bring. Mandatory privacy levels strip consumers and producers of the freedom to choose and is a threat to future technological innovation.

Though Adam already linked to it in a previous post, Jim Harper’s excellent paper on this subject provides a helpful framework for thinking about privacy issues and RFID technology.

  • http://jakking.typepad.com Jak King

    That’s one way to look at it. An equally valid POV is to suggest that you want your low privacy threshold subsidized by your refusal to expend the technological costs required to meet the needs of a particular (and very large) group of potential consumers.

  • http://jakking.typepad.com Jak King

    That’s one way to look at it. An equally valid POV is to suggest that you want your low privacy threshold subsidized by your refusal to expend the technological costs required to meet the needs of a particular (and very large) group of potential consumers.

  • http://www.privacilla.org Jim Harper

    Hey, thanks for the further plug, Thomas.

    Jak, I don’t think the converse of Thomas’ point is equally valid. Consumers who seek and find what they want in the marketplace, rather than through government intervention, are not ‘subsidized’ by government inaction.

    And, of course, if the group of consumers who want RFID restricted is actually “very large,” they will get what they want through their choices in the marketplace. That is one of the points in my paper.

  • http://www.privacilla.org Jim Harper

    Hey, thanks for the further plug, Thomas.

    Jak, I don’t think the converse of Thomas’ point is equally valid. Consumers who seek and find what they want in the marketplace, rather than through government intervention, are not ‘subsidized’ by government inaction.

    And, of course, if the group of consumers who want RFID restricted is actually “very large,” they will get what they want through their choices in the marketplace. That is one of the points in my paper.

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