RFID at Pitt

The P-G touts today's launch of an RFID product development center at Pitt. "RFID" stands for "Radio Frequency IDentification". This is a technology that electronically "tags" physical objects so that they can be monitored wirelessly as they move about the stream of commerce. Pitt's move bears watching. Even though the project website doesn't have much detail, the P-G's story reports that it involves faculty from various engineering disciplines, the School of Medicine, and the School of Information Sciences.

Alas: Where are the lawyers? (Full disclosure: I had never heard about Pitt's RFID research until I read about the Center launch in this morning's paper.)

Manufacturers and distributors are salivating over RFID technology. Wal-Mart is especially enthusiastic. Everything from rail cars to pallets to packages of disposable razor blades can be tagged and tracked, improvement inventory management dramatically by reducing the amount of stuff that is simply, well, lost. But privacy advocates are pretty worried: Will tracking really stop at the point of sale? Will manufacturers know what's in your medicine cabinet? Will manufacturers put one and one together when they read two tagged products in the same location? Can I install an anti-RFID reader technology in my house? Will manufacturers share RFID data with the government? And what happens when we start tagging people -- not just products? Because we will. There are huge privacy, data security, and IP problems lurking here, and none of those appear to be part of the agenda at Pitt.

All doesn't have to be doom and gloom; there's a huge upside to the RFID concept, particularly as the technology evolves. And law can help. Law has already spent a lot of time exploring the legal implications of computer networks, trying to design enforceable legal structures to make distributed computing more effective. Think open source licenses for computer software.

So imagine, for example, that the tagging doesn't come from the top down (manufacturers tag; consumers buy), but that it comes from the bottom up (consumers tag; consumers share data). Think blogging. Think cell phones. Think bar code readers. Now combine them. Then take a look, for example, at a project at Microsoft Research called Project AURA headed by a sociologist named Marc Smith. AURA is difficult to describe in a blog post; it's a little bit like a Wikipedia for things. It's a very, very cool concept.

Right now, Pitt's RFID program appears to be focused on making the world of Del Monte and GlaxoSmithKline a better place. That's OK; those companies have a lot of money in the pot. But will Pitt be able to think outside the box? We'll see.


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Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at]gmail.com. Mike also blogs at Madisonian.net, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

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