Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) Chips Offer Security, Threaten Privacy

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Mary Brown of Capella University explores the controversy and offers solutions for the responsible use of RFID technology.

A computer chip the size of a grain of rice can now be injected into your arm to provide emergency medical personnel with your health history. Tommy Thompson, Secretary of Health and Human Services during President Bush's first term, has expressed interest in having one put in his arm. After October 2006, the same type of computer chip will be embedded in every new passport and will contain information such as your name, date and place of birth, nationality, a digitized photo of yourself, and more.

They are called radio frequency identification (RFID) chips, and according to Capella University’s Mary Brown they are being used to track everything from lost pets to clothing shipments to school children. They can be as tiny as a small seed, and they are everywhere. Their purpose is to make our world more efficient, to help businesses better track their inventories, to make sure pertinent personal information is quickly available to those who need it. But the problem is that the information can be accessed by those who do not need it, including people you definitely do not want to have it.

Mary Brown, an expert in RFID security and an adjunct faculty member teaching information technology in the online degree program at Capella University, will explore the growing concerns about security and privacy related to RFID chips at the Minnesota Government IT Symposium in St. Paul, Minn., on Dec. 14, 2005. Capella learners benefit from expert faculty such as Ms. Brown who integrate controversial and hot topics into high-caliber online education.

“RFID is an excellent tool in terms of security. It is a terrible tool in terms of privacy,” Brown says. “For me, what it comes down to is our technology has gotten ahead of our ethics. When it comes to human tracking, I think we are crossing the edge.”

According to Brown, a balance can be found between the security that RFID chips offer and the privacy they threaten. For example, she suggests that medical bracelets embedded with RFID chips are a reasonable alternative to permanently injecting a chip into a person’s arm.

Also, because manufacturers today require such a huge number of RFID chips to keep track of all their goods, they want to get the chips for the lowest possible price, often under 5 cents each. However, this means the functionality of the chips is often very low, with little encryption used to provide protection. Brown says that the capability for encryption and other security measures has become increasingly important as the uses for RFID chips spread.

Brown also suggests limiting the type and amount of information that is contained on certain RFID chips. The reason being is that anyone can go online and purchase a relatively inexpensive chip reader and start harvesting information from RFID chips wherever they find them.

“RFID technology certainly has legitimate uses, and it is here to stay. However, we have entered a time when we need to step back and look at how it is being used and how it could be abused,” Brown says.

If you would like to contact Mary Brown, she can be reached at 612-724-5227.

About Mary Brown

Mary Brown works as an adjunct faculty member teaching information technology courses in the online degree program at Capella University; specializing in networking and information security curriculum. She holds a bachelor’s degree in management information systems and a master’s degree in information technology with an emphasis in information security. In her work as an information security and privacy specialist for Hennepin County Medical Center, she became aware of RFID technology and has been doing extensive research on the topic and its emergence into the healthcare industry.

About Capella University

Founded in 1993, Capella University is an accredited*online university that offers graduate degree programs in business, information technology, education, human services and psychology, as well as a Bachelor of Science online degree program with 10 specializations in business and information technology. The online university currently serves more than 13,000 enrolled learners from all 50 states and 55 countries. Capella University is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Capella Education Company, headquartered in Minneapolis. For more information, visit http://www.capella.edu or call 1-888-CAPELLA (227-3552).

*Capella University is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission and a member of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, located at 30 N. LaSalle Street, Suite 2400, Chicago, IL 60602-2504, (312) 263-0456, http://www.ncahigherlearningcommission.org.

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