Flyzik: Give RFID a chance

Despite some groups’ concerns, the tracking technology is safe enough for government use

You’ve seen the ads on TV — a pharmaceutical company promises that its new drug offers patients major health benefits. The end of the commercial, however, lists a variety of unpleasant potential side effects. Despite the possible side effects, we don’t withhold the drug from the marketplace. Instead, the consumer must weigh the drug’s benefits against its side effects.

This is a common-sense approach, and it applies to all types of technology as well as prescription drugs. One particular technology — radio frequency identification — is raising the hackles of interest groups and some lawmakers.

RFID is analogous to reading bar codes from a distance. Instead of moving a scanner across an item, RFID wirelessly transmits data from a tagged item to a reader. The technology is already delivering benefits in a variety of areas, from speeding traffic through toll plazas to running cargo through security checks at the country’s busiest ports.

It could play an even more useful role. But a coalition of more than 20 interest groups, including gun owners, tax reformers, physicians, privacy advocates and others, have decided that RFID has no place in an emerging federal standard that would make state driver’s licenses more secure.

The Real ID Act of 2005 mandates that machine-readable cards include specific data and apply antifraud technology. The Homeland Security Department is defining the standard now. In a recent letter to DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff, interest groups claim that RFID technology is changing too quickly, costs too much and is prone to security breaches.

Regardless of whether RFID belongs in the DHS standard, the group’s arguments against the technology are unconvincing. To rebut the charge that RFID is still evolving, the group should recognize that change is the only constant in the high-tech realm. That is why any federal standard should focus on performance and outcomes, not the technology used to deliver those outcomes.

As for cost, the prices of everything from computers to long-distance phone calls have plummeted in the past several years. Costs come down when innovation undermines a company’s competitive advantage, drives consumer demand for new products and services, and gives new market participants greater economies of scale. Costs remain high when consumers have fewer choices.

Finally, there is the issue of privacy and security, which is probably the group’s real problem with RFID. If deployed without the necessary security protections, RFID would pose risks in driver’s licenses and other applications. But technology safeguards make RFID worthy of additional DHS consideration.

RFID technology can be productive and beneficial. If misused, it can have harmful side effects, but society advances by creating, understanding and harnessing technology to perform useful work. Trying to impose bans on RFID misdiagnoses the problem and the cure.

Flyzik is a consultant and chairman of the Information Technology Association of America’s Homeland Security Committee. Before leaving government in 2002, he was vice chairman of the CIO Council and chief information officer at the Treasury Department.

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