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The Invisible Hand of RFID

"Privacy Invasion as ROI", by Ross Stapleton-Gray of Stapleton-Gray Associates, is an interesting article that might be characterized as the Internet of Things meets the Invisible Hand, Metcalfe's Law and the Law of Unintended Consequences, arguing that the deployment of RFID readers and tags is likely to evolve in a bottom-up way that will ultimately lead to erosion of privacy. 

We won’t see the “top down” creation of a national spy infrastructure, but, perhaps, the “bottom up” construction of an infrastructure that many parties—in both government and the private sector—might readily adapt for surveillance, and invasion of privacy.


If the deployment of RFID follows an arc similar to what has occurred with the Net, we should expect to see a proliferation of local systems, all useful in their primary applications, eventually knitted together into even more valuable systems of systems.  Those internetworked systems will find it easier to exchange information, and small pools of data will be merged and refined to produce larger and more valuable collections.  And as with the Internet, open architectures and widely recognized standards, such as the 30-year-old standard for product identifiers established for the print bar code, will form a strong base upon which to build interesting new applications.

Ross goes on to warn of the potential risks that may arise through these interesting new applications.  This is hardly surprising, given the relative dearth of consumer-focused (as compared with merchant- or vendor-focused) applications of RFID technology.  Imagine the challenges in marketing mobile telephony without a clear consumer value proposition ("carry around these mobile electronic devices that will allow your wireless carrier track your whereabouts").  Given policy announcements by the U.S. Department of Defense, Wal-Mart, and others, that will require the use of RFID tags and readers, the capabilities for "interesting new applications" of RFID will be proliferating ... I look forward to those that are also useful and beneficial to consumers.

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