RFID, presence and privacy

I shuddered not once, but twice during a recent local newscast that demonstrated how a mere fingerprint scan will soon replace an ATM or credit card swipe for the purchase of goods and services.

The first shiver was for the ease with which I'll soon be blowing wads of cash with literally the touch of a finger. The second, with a slight nod to Anna Ayala of the Wendy's finger-in-the-chili fiasco and a big one to Tom Cruise's retinas in the 2002 flick "Minority Report," came as I envisioned opportunists eagerly hacking off the index fingers of people with fat bank accounts.

It sounds preposterous, but we do keep inventing things with scary downsides that need some consideration up front. Take the potential privacy issues associated with presence applications. Within a couple of years, they will be enhanced with radio frequency identification (RFID) technology to fulfill part of their location-tracking requirement.

Presence, as you likely know, is about a centralized unified communications application working across wired and wireless networks to keep track of who you are, where you are and what you're doing. Its goal from a business perspective is to help you manage dynamic communication; to automatically let in the important communication that you need, even in exceptional circumstances, yet send non-urgent communication to a mailbox if you are already constructively engaged.

One part of the location piece of presence will be RFID tags in mobile communications devices. In a healthcare setting, the nearest doctor to a patient in crisis with the most appropriate skill set can be quickly located and dispatched, improving patient care and possibly saving lives.

Retailers with RFID readers throughout their stores might identify customers carrying mobile phones with RFID tags and match them to their purchasing and preferences files. This could be helpful. Or it could be a travesty, depending on how the retailer deploys and manages the technology.

Much in the way talking heads greeted Tom Cruise's "Minority Report" character, John Anderton, by name to sell him his favorite brands in the mall of 2054, we could suddenly find ourselves barraged by video ads, e-mails, SMS messages and phone calls, all pushing something in the store that applies to us.

Customized service is great to have; but we need it managed in a way that is helpful rather than intrusive.

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