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RFID and Privacy

January 25, 2008
by Reece Hirsch
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Radio frequency identification (RFID) technology offers powerful tools for electronic tagging and tracking -- tools that, if misused, may raise serious privacy concerns. On January 23, Ontario’s Information Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian released, in association with Hewlett-Packard Canada, a publication that endorses the benefits of RFID technology in health care. A copy of the report, RFID and Privacy: Guidance for Health-Care Providers, is available at www.ipc.on.ca.

An RFID tag consists of a microchip capable of storing information and an antenna that can transmit data over radio waves back to a computer database for tracking and storage. Some U.S. hospitals are already using RFID tags to track surgical equipment and sponges during procedures to ensure that they aren’t left inside patients. RFID can also be very effective in helping hospitals manage their inventories of supplies and biological products.

However, RFID tags may also be misused to intrude upon employee privacy. For example, if RFID tags are attached to hospital employee access badges, the technology may be used to ensure that employees comply with access restrictions within the facility. But when the employee takes the access badge home, RFID radio transmission could also be used to track the private activities of employees outside the workplace. Commissioner Cavoukian takes the enlightened view that privacy concerns should not trump the potentially life-saving benefits of RFID technology, so long as privacy is considered at the design stage of any program.

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Comments

You're absolutely right, the example I used there is not particularly realistic. There are RFID tag technologies, often known as battery-assisted passive or active RFID, that have the capability to transmit at somewhat longer distances of over 50 meters. It's also my understanding that there are forms of RFID being developed that would amplify an RFID signal for long-range transmission. Nevertheless, a hospital is unlikely to use those forms of RFID for employee access badges.

However, there is some evidence to suggest that nurses and other hospital staff do have concerns about the surveillance capabilities of RFID in hospital. See "Tracking the social dimensions of RFID systems in hospitals," by Jill A. Fisher and Torin Monahan in the International Journal of Medical Informatics 77 (2008) 176-183 (available online at http://torinmanahan.com/papers/Fisher_Monahan_RFID_IJMI.pdf).

Perhaps a better example would be a hospital's use of RFID tags to monitor the movements of nurses or other employees on the hospital campus, including whether they are regularly going outside the building to smoke.

There must be strong transmitters in those RFID name tags to enable hospital tracking of employees private activities at home.

Reece Hirsch

Partner, Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP

Reece Hirsch's Health Care Privacy Law Blog offers a lively commentary on a wide range of...