RFID and the Right to Silence

The European Commission has issued an action plan concerning the use, and possible abuse, of RFID, smart chips and other aspects of what is becoming known as the Internet of Things.

The report, “Internet of Things – an action plan for Europe”, proposes 14 action points, including work on the policy governance of RFID, continuous monitoring of the privacy and data security issues arising, action over the recycling of the potentially vast number of smart chips and cards, and pan-European standards work.

Most interestingly, the EU will launch a debate over what it terms the ‘Right to Silence of the Chips’ – empowering individuals to be able to disconnected from the emerging networked infrastructure at any time.

Although this may seem of tangential interest to higher education, university libraries are among the early adopters of this new technology. There is also likely to be considerable uptake of smart card-related technologies for the identification of staff and students and for building security.

Indeed, JISC TechWatch published a report on RFID in May 2006 which discussed these emerging developments and put them into an education context. The TechWatch report discussed privacy concerns in depth, pointing out that as individuals move around in a society of widespread tagging the products they buy, wear and consume, as well as the places they visit, will be capable of being identified and recorded by a widespread network of readers. Such information could provide a great deal of intelligence on a person, their habits, likes and dislikes and movements.

TechWatch concluded that the benefits of these technologies would only be properly realised if they can be trusted. The EU report backs this view and argues for a widespread debate over the issues and for the ultimate development of an Internet of Things for people rather than for technology’s own sake.