Senators Want More RFID Education

Two members of the U.S. Senate launched a radio frequency identification (RFID) caucus Thursday, with the purpose of educating lawmakers on the benefits of the expanding technology.

Sens. Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat, and John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, plan to sponsor periodic discussions on Capitol Hill about the advantages of RFID and the policy implications.

RFID is already used in a variety of applications, including tracking feed animals and pets, allowing drivers to quickly pay for road tolls with RFID-enhanced credit cards, and for inventory tracking by retailers such as Wal-Mart Stores. RFID technology offers "important promise for this country," Dorgan said. "We need a place to talk. We need a place to exchange views about this."

Privacy advocates such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation have raised concerns about RFID, which uses small computer chips and antennas that are integrated into paper or plastic labels. Those chips can then be read by an electronic scanner, and unlike bar codes can be scanned from distances of up to about 20 feet (6.1 meters).

Early retail experiments with RFID hit some snags, raising the ire of privacy advocates and some lawmakers. In early 2003, Wal-Mart and Procter & Gamble tested the use of RFID chips on individual packages of lipstick in a supposedly secret test in an Oklahoma store. The RFID chips allowed Wal-Mart to track the customers as they took the lipstick off shelves.

Speakers at the caucus launch event played up the benefits of RFID while downplaying potential problems. RFID has allowed retailers and the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) to reduce inventory redundancies, said Kathy Smith, special assistant for end-to-end customer support at the DoD. The DoD began requiring suppliers to use RFID tags in early 2005.

"When you’ve got a general yelling in your ear, saying ‘I want that part because that Humvee needs to be fixed now,’ you tend to reorder" a misplaced part, Smith said.

RFID will transform the way U.S. companies do business, added Patrick Sweeney, president and chief executive officer of Odin Technologies, an RFID vendor. In five years, he predicted, most U.S. businesses will have more RFID tags than telephones.

"This is the most disruptive technology we’ve seen in the business world since the Internet," he added.

The United States has a competitive advantage in deploying RFID as the European Union debates privacy issues, panelists said. But American companies, universities and government agencies need to do more research into RFID advancements, said Daniel Engels, founding director of the Texas RFID Center and an electrical engineering professor at the University of Texas at Arlington.

U.S. RFID companies are largely focused on deploying RFID, but there needs to be more research into silicon design, power sources and advanced designs, he said.

By Grant Gross, IDG News Service (Washington Bureau)

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