New legislation may be required to regulate the widespread use of RFID (radio frequency identification) tags. That's according to the European Commission which has announced the beginning of a public inquiry to identify citizens' concerns about the technology.

RFID tags are increasingly being used to track inventory in supermarkets, or to authenticate and encode information in national identity documents. Each tag contains a unique serial number that can be read by an electronic device at distances ranging from a few millimetres up to several meters. By associating the serial number with information contained in databases, the tags can be used to provide personal information on the bearer of an identity document or the full manufacturing and shipping history of a consumer product, perhaps even including who bought it and when.

The Commission is concerned about the personal privacy and security issues raised by such applications, and intends to hold a series of workshops in Brussels through June to canvas public opinion on the subject. The results of the workshops will be incorporated into a consultation document due to be published in September.

Protection of personal information in electronic form is already the subject of a European law, the e-Privacy Directive. If the Commission identifies new threats to European Union citizens' privacy from RFID and determines that new legislation is required to protect them, then it will consider revising that directive, it said.

RFID is also a European issue for other reasons. Laws allowing for the free movement of goods around the E.U. would be worthless if tags on packaged foods from Poland, say, were unreadable by scanners in Portugal, as supermarkets would not be able to track their inventory. The Commission is also considering legislation on technology standards and radio spectrum allocation to ensure the harmonisation of tag technology across the EU.