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Are you RFIDed?
Jul 1, 2009

Though tremendous technical efforts are being spent on solving the problem of privacy concerns in RFID usage, this is only one side of the story. The problems human beings encounter cannot be solved solely by technical means because humans are not products of engineering. They have hearts, minds, and consciences, which constitute their metaphysical dimension.

Technology brings a great many novelties into our lives, but usually at high cost. Driven by the economic expansion resulting from advances in manufacturing, climate change has been one of the biggest threats facing humanity for the last couple of decades. Mass production has led to excessive consumption, which is seen as one reason for obesity around the world. While nuclear energy plants feed hundreds of cities with electricity, weapons of mass destruction threaten human existence. Not only our bodily health and environment are under threat; new technology leaves almost no room for our privacy. Surrounded by wireless networks, computers, and cell phones, it is easy to gain access to the personal information of others. Although some sincere efforts have been made to improve the civil law to protect privacy, there is much confusion, and the boundaries of private life cannot be determined; at this point the prescriptions of the heavenly religions, especially of Islam, are worth consideration.

We usually underestimate these high-tech intrusions into our lives, for we tend to enjoy, and thus are blinded by the countless, fascinating benefits of technology. Imagine the following scenario: let us say you are just about to leave your workplace for home when you receive a message from your kitchen on your cell phone. In the message you find the shopping list that you need to buy from the grocery store. You go to the grocery store, put all the items in your shopping cart, and drive the cart through the checkout without stopping. All the items are scanned simultaneously and the total amount is deducted from your credit account automatically. When you arrive home, on the small LCD screen in your kitchen you see a list of all the food items past their expiry date in the refrigerator, and you throw them out. When you put all your laundry in the washing machine, you do not bother to choose a program; the machine does it automatically by recognizing each item of clothing separately.

This kind of story could be routine for most of us in the near future if Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) becomes part of our daily lives. Many of us already use RFID tags routinely. Examples include the ignitions of many millions of automobiles, proximity cards, automatic toll payments, and payment tokens. So, what is RFID exactly? RFID is technology for the automated identification of objects and people. An RFID device-frequently just called an RFID tag-is a small chip designed for wireless transmission. It is generally attached to an antenna in a package that resembles an ordinary adhesive sticker. An RFID tag transmits data over the air in response to interrogation by an RFID reader. In general, small RFID tags are passive. They have no on-board power source; they derive their transmission power from the signal of an interrogating reader. Some RFID tags contain batteries. There are two such types: semi-passive tags, whose batteries power their circuitry when they are interrogated and active tags, whose batteries power their transmission.1

Although RFID promises such advances in our lives and there is intensive research going on in both engineering and business management areas as to how and when RFID can be implemented in a broader sense in daily life-medication, business, military, and so on-there are also some concerns being raised by civil rights circles, consumer rights groups, and some individuals about the implementation of RFID. The main issue is potential personal and corporate privacy threats. RFID technology poses unique privacy and security concerns because the human eye cannot detect whether RFID tags are being read, and RFID tags do not hold a history of their past readings. As a result, tags are promiscuous: they can be read by entities other than their owners and without their owners' knowledge. Further, both tags and readers can be covertly embedded in the environment; short-range readers can be small enough to fit into a cell phone.2

Threats can be put into two groups: threats affecting corporations, and threats affecting individuals. For example, an agent who has an RFID reader capable of interrogating a competitor's products can walk through the aisles of a store and get information about the inventory level, data about customer preferences, turnover rate of specific products (each item with RFID tag becomes uniquely identifiable), supply chain data, and so on. From the perspective of individuals, their private lives might be investigated without their approval by third parties. Their tastes as to what kind of clothing they choose to buy, what kind of specific medication they are on, what kind of valuable items they possess are susceptible to unauthorized disclosure. Because each tag is uniquely identifiable, when tags move from one person to another, the relations between the individuals can be determined. As an extreme case, if a tag is not removed from an item after purchase is completed (most of the time tags will be kept on items for customer service requirements), a thief with an RFID reader which can transmit signals powerful enough to detect items in houses can easily choose his next victim.

These are all possibilities which can be thought of as a threat for now. As technology advances, some of these threats will be eliminated by novel technical measures, but then new threats will emerge.

As technology adds new and enriching dimensions to our lives, it also introduces new problems for its adopters. Most of the scenarios mentioned above might not become real threats. However, people's fear of their privacy being violated has increased tremendously with huge developments in telecommunications, the sudden invasion of our lives by the Internet and finally the appearance of RFID on the horizon. Are we going to feel that we are under constant surveillance in our personal lives, at home, at school, in the office, on the road? While numerous researchers are trying to find answers to calm the unease about RFID in the public, they still cannot give satisfactory responses to some of the concerns.

RFID-Privacy and moral issues

Though tremendous technical efforts are being spent on solving the problem of privacy concerns in RFID usage, this is only one side of the story. The problems human beings encounter cannot be solved solely by technical means because humans are not products of engineering. They have hearts, minds, and consciences, which constitute their metaphysical dimension. Anybody who attempts to solve a social problem while ignoring this dimension of the human being is bound to fail in the attempt.

A person cannot be isolated from the rest of society as isolation contradicts human nature. Since human beings need to live within society, it is vital that everybody has an understanding of some basic common moral values which sustain peace and security among people. Most religions try to establish a moral system that advises individuals to be merciful and kind to each other and to refrain from attitudes or actions which disturb others. Islam also promotes such moral values.

Humankind holds a position above all other creations such that it is apparent that God Almighty values humans more than they value themselves or each other. Just as every individual is valuable in the eyes of God, so is his or her honor, character and dignity. No matter what the circumstances, it is strictly forbidden to insult, condemn, investigate or publicize the faults, deficiencies or private state of an individual. The secrecy of the private life is untouchable.

The Qur'an decisively prohibits spying into and disclosing the secrets and private lives of people, and orders keeping secret any detect and sinful act which one has seen in a person: O you believe! Avoid much suspicion, for some suspicion is a grave sin (liable to God's punishment); and do not spy (on one another) (Qur'an 49:12). Neither can a Muslim government spy on people to see whether they are committing a sin or crime unless there is decisive proof that they are committing something against the public peace. Likewise, spying into homes, opening and reading letters that belong to others, and listening to the conversations of other people are all wrong.3

The second caliph of Islam, Umar ibn al-Khattab, was once walking on the streets of Medina, the capital, at night. Suddenly he heard noise coming from one of the houses, a noise indicating that somebody was drunk and singing loudly. Umar climbed over the wall, entered the house, and witnessed a very disappointing situation. He complained of the situation to the man inside, and said, "Did you think that God would allow you to hide this fault of yours?" The man replied, "O Caliph of the Muslims, stop and don't rush. I committed one sin in the eyes of God; however, you have made three mistakes here. First of all, God says, Do not spy on one another (Qur'an 49:12), but you spied on me. Second, God says, Come to dwellings (in the normal way) by their doors (Qur'an 2:189), but you climbed over my wall, and finally God says, O you who believe! Do not enter dwellings other than your own until you have ascertained the permission of their residents and have greeted them with peace (Qur'an 24:27), but you entered my house without getting my permission and you did not greet me with peace."

Umar was very upset with himself and replied, "If I forgive you, will you forgive me?" The man said, "Yes." Then Umar said, "I forgive you," and left the house.4

It is possible that only a small fraction of society has suffered violation of its privacy; however, most of us fear being the next in line. Here I have tried to introduce the concerns surrounding the implementation of RFID in daily life. Those concerns are a subset of a bigger problem, which is the misuse of technology and violation of others' rights by intruding into their privacy. Every technical precaution taken to ease those concerns will no doubt be followed by new technical challenges posed by the violators. It is almost impossible to stop this wave of fears just by adhering to technological advances. Moral values must always be promoted at the individual level and also at societal level. Until the day that our values lead our technical advances, none of us will have the luxury of having a private corner in this life.

Yasin Ceran is a math teacher in Houston, Texas.


  1. Juels, Ari. "RFID Security and Privacy: A Research Survey", IEEE Journal on Selected Areas in Communication, Vol. 24 , No. 2, February 2006.
  2. Garfinkel, Simson L., Ari Juels, Ravi Pappu. "RFID Privacy: An Overview of Problems and Proposed Solutions," IEEE Security and Privacy published by IEEE Computer Society.
  3. Ünal, Ali, The Qur'an with Annotated Interpretation in Modern English, New Jersey, Tughra Books, 2007.
  4. Kanzu'l-Ummâl, 3/808 hadith number; 8827.