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Summary Article: Radio Frequency Identification Technology
from Encyclopedia of Criminal Justice Ethics

Radio frequency identification (RFID) technology is a wireless radio-frequency technology that uses radio waves to transfer information for the purpose of tracking and identification. A variety of RFID technologies exist, but the most common method for its use is to store a serial identification number on a chip that has an antenna that transmits information to a chip reader. The technology was initially developed as a defense transponder system for the “identification, of friend or foe” (IFF) aircraft in World War II. In the 1980s and 1990s the industrial development and use of RFID technologies became widespread, having a number of commercial applications including but not limited to automatic vehicle toll systems, automotive security systems, freight logistics, livestock and pet identification, personnel access management, and the tracking of equipment, goods, and persons for security purposes. The potential for state and federal law enforcement agencies to use RFID technology for covert surveillance purposes has become one of the most controversial implications of this technology. Many privacy advocates fear the government use of RFID technology as a covert surveillance tool and view the implementation of this technology as being the beginning of a police state.

RFID technology offers substantial benefits for law enforcement agencies. The technology has increased the capacity of law enforcement agencies to identify and recover stolen property, which is evident in the success of the LoJack car recovery system. The increased prevalence of RFIDs may deter theft and possession of illegal contraband and minimize illegal transactions. Also, the technology has vast potential to aid law enforcement agencies in locating and apprehending criminal suspects. Further advances in RFID technology can also assist law enforcement in combating more serious crimes ranging from counterfeiting to kidnapping.

RFID technology has substantially increased the potential for law enforcement agencies to gather information and evidence, which raises a number of ethical questions. Privacy advocates fear that law enforcement agencies will take advantage of the widespread use of RFID technology and exploit its surveillance capability to perform searches on people and their property without their knowledge. With advances in this technology law enforcement agencies could potentially track the location and movement of all citizens at all times given the widespread application of RFID tags by both private industries and government. An increasing number of Americans have personal effects that are identified with RFID tags for security purposes. RFID tags are commonly placed in the keys and security systems of automobiles, the electronic toll collection (ETC) transponders in automobiles, higher-end electronics, LoJack car recovery systems, higher-denomination bank notes, collectibles and art work, retail goods, and employee identification cards.

Given the increased prevalence of RFIDs police officers equipped with RFID readers could covertly scan suspects within range to identify an individual's identity without their knowledge. RFID tags in employee identification cards, motor vehicles, chips that have voluntarily been implanted in humans for medical purposes, and RFIDs in miscellaneous personal effects can potentially be used for this purpose. If policy makers were to enact legislation requiring RFID tags in passports and state identification cards, the covert identification of citizens through remote surveillance would be an easier task.

There is also the potential for law enforcement officers to secretly place RFID tags on individuals or their property for surveillance purposes, similar to how law enforcement agencies secretly place global positioning system (GPS) transmitters on a suspect's property to monitor activity. Additionally, RFID scanners could be used to determine if an individual has stolen goods in his or her possession. Potentially, firearms could be tagged, allowing officers to determine if an individual possesses a firearm. Furthermore, the RFID surveillance technology could be applied in security checkpoints, such as airports to detect contraband, and could be placed on highways and intersections to collect information. The shortcoming of the potential uses of this technology by law enforcement agencies is the fact that many would-be criminals and terrorists will remove RFIDs from their persons and effects to avoid detection.

How the law applies to the potential uses of RFID technology by law enforcement agencies for covert surveillance purposes remains unclear. Advocates of the increased use of RFID technology contend that the standard legal constraints placed on law enforcement for search and seizure, including probable cause and warrants, should apply to RFID searches in a similar manner as standard searches and wiretaps, and they contend that law enforcement officers will not be permitted to perform “unreasonable covert searches on arbitrary individuals.” J. Christiana and coauthors argue that the privacy concern surrounding the applications of RFID technology does not exceed the concerns of existing use of law enforcement surveillance technologies and that when applied lawfully the technology offers substantial benefits for law enforcement agencies. Despite these arguments privacy advocates have a valid concern regarding the potential for law enforcement agencies to use RFID technology without an individual's knowledge. The uses of RFID surveillance technology are substantively similar to the growing uses of GPS technology. Courts have produced conflicting decisions as to whether the Fourth Amendment prohibits the covert tracking of individuals using GPS transmitters without court approval. Given the lack of court decisions pertaining to the legal limits of RFID surveillance technology, the potential uses of RFID technology by law enforcement remains a gray area of the law.

See Also: Sting Operations; Surveillance Policing, Digital Locating and Mapping; Surveillance Policing, Video and Audio; Undercover Operations; Wiretapping

Further Readings
  • Campbell, D.RFID Policy May Not Wait”. RFID Journal (2005). (Accessed October 2013).
  • Christiana, J.; N. Cirella; B. Lee; J. Sun; G. Werner-Allen. “Law Enforcement Response to Concerns Regarding RFID Technology”. CS199r Briefing Document. Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (2007). (Accessed October 2013).
  • Landt, J.Shrouds of Time: The History of RFID”. The Association for Automatic Identification and Data Capture Technologies (2001). (Accessed October 2013).
  • Liao, P.; A. Smith; C. Wang. “Convenience and Safety vs. Privacy: The Ethics of Radio Frequency Identification (RFID)”. Ethica (2004). (Accessed October 2013).
  • Blake M. Randol
    University of Wisconsin Milwaukee
    © 2014 SAGE Publications, Inc

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