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 big nod 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.
The aim of presence technology
Presence, as you likely know, is about a centralised 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.
But is it intrusive?
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.
Customised service is great to have; but we need it managed in a way that is helpful rather than intrusive. There's a very delicate balance to strike between productivity and privacy.
As one reader, a certified information systems auditor (CISA) and certified information systems security professional (CISSP), pointed out to me:
"With the lack of ethics displayed throughout our global society, Big Brother applications will undoubtedly appear [that make inappropriate use of RFID information]."
Another reader, from the RFID community, asked me: "The mobile phone vendors can already track everyone carrying a mobile phone. Do you feel [RFID] greatly expands that 'loss' of privacy?"
It's not what technology but how it's used
My answer: It doesn't matter to me which location-tracking technology is used, but, rather, how it is used. For example, I don't personally feel the mobile operators' ability to track my phone invades my privacy - yet. At least to my knowledge, the capability hasn't been applied in such a way. Tracking me down for purposes of my own safety is a positive application of the technology.
But if a stalker (or telemarketer) can suddenly find me wherever I am, that's a horse of a different color. Whether they lasso me using triangulation or RFID technology is irrelevant.
Worry over simply being too accessible - for privacy, time management, security or stress reasons - has been one of the big objections to having a directory of cellular subscribers. Cellular phone owners haven't wanted to receive the telemarketing calls (particularly - in the US - on their own dime) that plague them at home, spam in the form of short message service (SMS) text and now mobile viruses once their contact information is public.
On the other hand, having directories can also be quite handy when used appropriately.
I think location tracking in general and perhaps RFID in particular have the potential to become the most revolutionary set of technologies since the cell phone itself, bringing us truly into the Star Trek age. We are now wise to the foibles that can arise with any communication and information technology, so it makes sense to anticipate the potential abuses up front so we can minimise the downsides.
It's not going to be easy, though. Much of that work boils down to ethics, a topic that is very difficult for society to agree upon.