Technology Advances Often Must Be Nurtured

Despite what our memories may tell us in hindsight, technology advances usually don’t come as quickly and easily as we would like or progress as smoothly as they might in a perfect world.

There are almost always speed bumps in the road as technology moves from the lab to everyday use. One such emerging technology that has been in the news lately precisely because of some development and acceptance hiccups is RFID, a promising wireless technology that has innumerable potential uses.

Before we kill this technology with hyperbolic cries of privacy intrusions and the potential for Big Brother implementations, we need to give this technology time to develop.

RFID, which stands for Radio Frequency Identification, has been around in a primitive form in the EZ pass toll card found on growing numbers of automobile windshields. In this use, an electronic reader at the tollbooth “reads” a smart card containing a microchip as the car zips through the tollbooth. The reader “collects” the toll, which the driver has pre-paid by credit card or check, and the car passes through the tollbooth without stopping -- often without even slowing down very much.

Another common application is Exxon Mobil’s Speed Pass which allows users to fill up their car by simply waving a key chain tag in front of the gas pump.

RFID has been in the news recently because the State Department wants to use it in new passports. Under State Department plans, future American passports would include a microchip that contains information about the traveler. This would include all the traditional information found in passports, such as the bearer’s photo, passport number, date of birth, etc. By passing the passport over a reader, Customs and Immigration officials could access all this information which would then be displayed on a monitor.

At some point in the future, by requiring other nations to use this technology in their own passports, American security officials at border checkpoints, seaports and airports could more easily identify potential terrorists or others who should not be allowed to enter the country.

But the technology has come under fire recently because some people think it will be used as a way for the government to track people surreptitiously. These detractors envision privacy violations and other intrusions by government officials. As it turns out, the State Department has temporarily backed off plans to use RFID technology in passports anytime soon. The reasons are primarily centered on concerns that would-be criminals or terrorists could use hand-held readers to identify Americans in a crowd in a foreign country. Thus, under this scenario, an anti-terrorist weapon could become a tool of terrorists if the technology is in the hands of the wrong people.

All this, of course, has given critics of further deployment of RFID technology much to talk about. But before we throw the baby out with the bath water, we need to let this technology develop and see where it will lead us and see what additional real life applications there are for it. There are many and they are limited only by our imagination.

For example, this wireless technology lets merchants track inventory through the supply chain. Wal-Mart is already asking some of its vendors to use it on shipping pallets; other companies are experimenting with it as well. Someday all groceries and other products in a supermarket could be tracked using this wireless technology, increasing efficiency and productivity all along the way from manufacturer to warehouse to store to customer.

But ease and convenience are not the only benefits that could flow from dramatically expanded use of RFID technology. Besides making our lives more convenient, it could also protect lives by tracking and inventorying prescription drugs to help ensure safety. How could we say “No” to that?

While critics often deride RFID as a threat to privacy, there are a few consumer-focused RFID products on the market now that not only enhance a users’ privacy and but also serve the greater good. One such product is the VeriChip, an FDA approved RFID medical device that can quickly and efficiently provide caregivers access to a patient’s important medical information – ideal for medical emergency situations or when patients are incoherent or unconscious.

Even though it saves lives, Applied Digital, the company that produces the VeriChip, recognizes that the mere threat to privacy casts a shadow over their product and has taken steps to protect their consumers. These include the implementation of stringent security protocols, the appointment of a Chief Privacy Officer, and the adoption of a comprehensive privacy policy.

As pragmatic research and development on this new wireless technology plays out, we should keep in mind that the perfect solution to how any new technology should be implemented is seldom immediately known. In fact, history has shown that new technology often causes initial backlashes. But if scientists, developers and individual consumers who will be using the technology work together to determine the right best practices for its ultimate use, untold and unknown benefits and improvements will be found.

Jim Prendergast is executive director of Americans for Technology Leadership.