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Scientific American ran an article on RFID (Radio Frequency Identification Tag) in its January issue. RFID is a small and inexpensive device which can give out its identity when in the proximity of a reading device. Benetton is planning to put RFID in its garments and Wal-Mart wishes to ask its major suppliers to put RFID in their products. The intention is to have automated inventory and cashier system with readers keeping track of product stock and in cashier lines.

RFID is not new. We have many applications in Hong Kong, such as the Autotoll, octopus, many smartcards and employee ID cards and access cards. In some countries, rich people implant RFID under the skin of their children to prevent kidnapping. The utopia predicted by scientists is that with RFID, computers will integrate better with people. There is no need to give commands to computer. For example, as soon as you walk into your office, a device read your RFID and know who you are. Your computer can be switched on for you, with the correct user profile loaded, it then checks your email and loads your favourite webpage for you.

In a security-conscious organization I worked for, all staff have an ID card which is also an access card. Most entrances are equipped with locks which can be opened with the card. Everywhere you go in the building, the computer will log all events of who is opening which door and when.

The catch is that people are not happy with this convenience which intrudes their privacy. In many countries, there are civic groups protesting against the use of RFID. They are afraid that high energy readers can be built to scan the RFID on clothing, equipment and ID card as people walk by. The thought of the big brothers linking information of your credit card and all things you bought is appalling. There were protesters with signs and banners in UK.

In any case, RFID will be more common in Hong Kong, being used by employers and the government, to monitor their employees and assets. Their use will have to comply with the data privacy guidelines to be issued by PCO. This will be a challenge for the HR managers to ensure that the principle enshrined in the guidelines is upheld.