When actor Tom Cruise enters a Gap store of the future in the movie "Minority Report," his retina is quickly scanned. A soft computer voice asks how he's enjoyed a previous purchase.
Is the scene a preview of an Orwellian world where privacy is greatly diminished? Or an example of technology as a powerful marketing tool in the near future?
At first, many technological advances are often appealing, bringing efficiency and convenience to users. But as these innovations develop, citizens and businesses must carefully consider how each new gadget relates to, and possibly affects, privacy, personal freedom, and civil rights.
One innovation rapidly making its way over the technology horizon: RFID (radio frequency ID) technology. RFID tags are the successor to bar codes (think of a tiny microchip that transmits a unique code). Although they aren't likely to be put on individual items in stores for several years, they're already commonly used for tracking warehouse inventory. And the possibilities for RFID applications are limited only by the imagination.
Consider the convenience of wheeling a cartload of groceries up to the checkout, and having everything scanned and rung up without lifting a finger because each item has a readily scannable RFID tag. Or think about cars that can broadcast their unique identity from RFID-equipped license plates, an item already in production in Britain. Police could use the technology to help find stolen cars. Already, many drivers make use of tags equipped with RFID technology to zip through tolls.
But wait: Have citizens considered the potential for being tracked whenever they're in a car? Or having their personal preferences registered because a washable RFID chip happens to be in their sweater?
In fact, the sheer range of potential applications for RFID technology make the need for extensive public debate about its implications that much greater. At least one operating principle should be that of preserving the ability of citizens to choose what information is retained, no matter what the application. Frequent fliers, for example, are choosing to give personal information to government authorities in return for an expedited place in line through airport security.
Other possible solutions to the privacy issue surrounding RFID technology: Make the tags so people can disable them. Let consumers know when RFID tags are being used. Put them on the outside of packages, not embedded in products.
The US has been, and should remain, a champion of individual freedoms around the world. It has a marvelous opportunity to set an example by showing how it carefully balances privacy with this latest invention.