News
4/15/2008
08:53 PM
Terry Sweeney
Terry Sweeney
Commentary
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Data in Motion, And At Rest

As an IT professional, which one worries you more? And what do you do about a technology like RFID that splits the difference between those two conditions -- stationary, yet traveling across the airwaves, and god knows where else?

As an IT professional, which one worries you more? And what do you do about a technology like RFID that splits the difference between those two conditions -- stationary, yet traveling across the airwaves, and god knows where else?Earlier this week, I wrote a short piece about American Apparel's adoption of radio frequency identification, from its manufacturing plants to its cash registers.

I can't think of another emerging technology that provokes readers like this one -- digital rights management, maybe, or the iPhone. But after tracking RFID for a couple years as both a reporter and an editor, the "Big Brother" and personal privacy issues inevitably rear their heads.

In fairness, I didn't help the debate along much by suggesting in the first paragraph of my story that American Apparel was embedding RFID tags directly in its clothing. It's not.

One alert reader correctly took me to task for this misstatement. "Retailers either use a paper hangtag or a reusable 'hard' tag (typically encased in plastic). The vast majority, including Marks & Spencer (which is tagging over 100 million garments per year), use paper hangtags. American Apparel is similarly using a paper hangtag," he wrote in an e-mail.

The reader and his colleagues are all too aware of how this issue inflames privacy advocates. "I take the issue of consumer privacy seriously. So too do my retail clients. Together we work hard to ensure that consumers receive the opportunity to evaluate RFID solely on its merits," he said. "I trust you'll appreciate why it was important that I draw these facts to your attention."

Indeed I do. But I wonder where this leaves data center professionals, who oversee daily terabyte volumes of personal information, whether it's stored in an archive or getting pushed around between departmental servers. I don't discount the privacy issues of RFID; I just think of TJX exposing the credit card numbers of 94 million customers. There's practically no outrage there, maybe because it's more impersonal -- a big corporation, strings of numbers. With RFID, you're in my home or on my person. Yet which of these vulnerabilities is the more probable, and the more potentially damaging?

Maybe it's a micro-macro issue, a question of data volume. Either way, we're a long way from resolving the many issues that RFID raises.

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