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Monday, February 19, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Does RFID technology pose risk?

Seattle Times staff reporter

OLYMPIA — Tiny radio transmitters in credit cards, on clothing tags and even inside animals expedite sales, guide products through the supply chain and help lost pets get home.

But privacy advocates worry the same technology could be used to spy on consumers.

To pre-empt such high-tech surveillance, state Rep. Jeff Morris, D-Mount Vernon, wants to make sure no one can use such technology to track people through the merchandise they buy, or to tap into their personal information.

His proposal, House Bill 1031, includes some of the nation's tightest restrictions on the technology known as radio frequency identification, or RFID.

Morris has the support of privacy groups, but technology companies say his bill addresses a problem that doesn't need fixing. The companies say they already work hard to protect customers' privacy and that additional regulation would only hurt their industries.

RFID tags store data that can be transmitted wirelessly when they come close to a reader device.

The uses range from tiny stickers that help track crates in Wal-Mart storerooms to sophisticated chips that transmit an address or account information from a cellphone or other electronic gadget.

The distance the information is transmitted varies: Some tags need almost direct contact with an RFID reader, while others can send signals several feet or even farther.

Under Morris' bill, anyone distributing items equipped with RFID technology would have to label the products, notify consumers if the item can transmit personal data, and show how to deactivate the transmitter if possible.

Retailers and other distributors also would have to ensure that RFID transmissions are securely encrypted.

The bill had its second hearing Friday in the House Technology, Energy and Communications Committee, which Morris chairs.

Representatives from RFID producers, retailers and the cellphone industry said the regulations would hamper their businesses and stifle new technology.

If the legislation passes, companies working on new uses for RFID may abandon their efforts, said Allison Fleming, a manager with the RFID company EPCglobal.

T-Mobile lobbyist Russell Sarazen said, "It would have devastating effects to T-Mobile and the rest of the wireless industry." He and other phone-industry representatives argue for an exemption for cellphones.

Wireless companies are developing RFID-equipped phones that allow users to order products simply by holding a handset close to a poster or advertising billboard, according to RFID Journal, a trade publication.

Sarazen also said the regulations are pointless for his industry because the whole purpose of the products is to send electronic messages.

Liz McIntyre, co-author of the book "Spychips: How Major Corporations and Government Plan to Track Your Every Purchase and Watch Your Every Move," said the RFID chips are everywhere and are small enough to slip between layers of paint, hide in tennis shoes, or secretly stick on computers.

"I could walk by things tagged with RFID and never even know," she said.

McIntyre foresees consumers unwittingly wearing RFID-tagged garments that could be tracked by strategically placed RFID readers.

That would give companies a complete history of each product, from store room to landfill, and give them a detailed look into consumer habits.

"It's likely when you buy a pair of shoes, it's going to be a proxy for you," McIntyre said.

Elliott Wilson: 360-236-8169

or ewilson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © The Seattle Times Company

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