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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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