Ethical Aspects of RFID

Technology has advanced at an unbelievable speed in the last century. One important rule in its advancements of processing power is called Moore’s Law. The law states, that approximately every two years the processing power of computer chips doubles. A good example for this is the size and cost of the computer used to guide the moon landing of Apollo compared to a pocket-sized smartphone. One of the technologies that scientists were able to discover, apply, and enhance because of the available processing capacites,  is RFID (Radio-Frequency Identification), as well as NFC (Near Field Communication). The line between these two is not completely defined, as both are built upon the same ideas and technology. You could say that NFC is, as the name implies, a short-range version of RFID. Therefore, RFID is the more important technology I will focus on.

Short History of RFID

For many it is hard to believe, but RFID is no new technology. By far not. It has been discovered in WW II, when scientists worked together with the military to develop new ways to identify aircrafts with radar. After all, they couldn’t just shoot down every unidentifiable airplane without knowing if it was theirs own or not.

Since then, non-military companies have discovered the handiness of RFID for themselves. The 80s was a big decade for RFID, as it was becoming much more popular in the fields of identification, tracking, manufacturing, and transportation. Since then, it has been an essential enhancement for businesses, the public as well as private sector, manufacturing and the military.

This graph shows, how much businesses in the U.S. were spending on RFID technology between 2005 and 2008. You can see a big jump in the implementation and usage of the technology. It proves how important the small chips have become to us in our daily lives.

Now, it may raise the question:


How does it work?

RFID is using radio frequencies, hence the name. It requires only two things to work: A so-called ‚Tag‘, and a ‚Reader‘, which is either connected to, or a computer itself. The Tag is equipped with an Antenna, so it can receive the order to activate the Transponder, which is the heart of the Tag. On the Transponder, different data can be stored. E.g. the bar code number for books, of the information if the commodity has been payed for. If it has not been payed, and somebody tries to steal it, the RFID Tag will alarm the security gates, as soon as it gets close to them. The biggest advantage of these chips is, that they do not rely on physical contact. This speeds the usage up tremendously. Another notable thing is, that there are different types of Tags, each suited best for a certain field.


Economic Implications

RFID Tags are a wonderful blessing for the economy. As there are different types of Tags, they can cover almost every imaginable area in a company. Why am I writing about the economy, some might wonder? Because the economy is having one hell of an impact on our private and public lives. I assume most have heard about Supply and Demand. New technologies are developed solely to produce smarter, cheaper, and plainly more. Money is a powerful motive. For example the iPhone. There have been smartphones before the Apple product. In fact, the first smartphone is already 20 years old. But Apple saw a market to be conquered, and now smartphones have influenced our lives in a way nobody could have predicted. Also, NFC is now standard in smartphones. And thanks to NFC, we have a nice transition back to RFID chips.

In the Office, the chips are used for:

  • Identification: Employees are provided with their own personalized ID card, which gives them access to certain areas within the company.
  • Location Management: Managers know when an employee has checked in, and depending on their company police, they can monitor their employees by tracking them as they use their ID card.
  • Security:  Most companies don’t want the new intern to have access to some old file rooms, or other high security areas. The easiest way to prevent them from getting in is by simply not providing them with the authorization on their card

In a store, they can

  • give costumers information about a product, like it’s size, price, expiration date, origin, etc.
  • be used as a security measure in combination with security gates.

Some bad tongues also say that they might be used to track a customers behaviour in a store. And they are right. A supermarket chain started a project about tracking its customers, where they went, and how much time they spent in certain locations. Everything for the sake of a better product layout, of course. A happy customer is a customer in a cheerful buying mood.

  But not only offices and stores profit from the chips. Manufacturing, Logistics and Supply Chain Departments benefit by far the most from it. Since the introduction of RFID tags, they have become much more efficient, because now they have the capability to supervise the entire production chain. From big machines to a small hammer. With the help of tags, nothing can get lost. Exponent and Age Steel is a company who has run a trial to prove this. They have provided 1.000 packages with tags, and the same amount without. During the trial period, they have known precisely where every tagged package was at all times. Whereas they had temporarily lost 300 untagged ones. This boosts productivity enormously, especially within companies handling a lot of packages, containers, or commodities.

Social Implications and Ethical Aspects

One of the biggest concerns about RFID tags and chips is security. Which also includes the security of ones privacy. Example: Nowadays, every new german personal ID card has a chip in it. The idea behind it might have been a good one: Making the information on it easier accessable for the government, official institutions, or certified Internet shops. But that turned out to become the problem: A lot of very private data, including one’s fingerprints, date of birth, etc. is saved on the chip. The new ID’s have been issued since 2010. The ‚Chaos Computer Club‘, – a very well-known and respected organization of hackers, with the goal to inform people, organisations, and the government about security issues-  hacked the new ID shortly after its release. And this happened with a government issued and supervised ID card.

Let me approach the topic of ethical aspects of RFID from different angles, meaning ethical theories.


Immanuel Kant was the philosopher who created this ethical theory in the 18th century. He believed, that there are universal, moral guidelines, which are also rational. That people should never be treated as the means to an end, but rather as the ends in themselves, as well as equals.

Let’s take a closer look at those statements, especially with the focus on privacy.

  • Is RFID usage universal?

The technology RFID is based on is, in fact, universal. However, depending on the desired effect, it differs. Other frequencies are used, different kinds of data is stored. There is no such thing as >the< universal RFID chip. Otherwise we’d use the same chip in our car keys and in the books we lend from the library. However, if we take a look at the different kinds of chips, and then decide if they are universal, we come to a different conclusion. The RFID chips in all credit cards are the same, it’s just the stored data that’s different. The same goes for chips in ID’s, library books, packages, etc. And as the chips can only be used for its intended purpose, they are universal.

  • Is RFID usage rational?

A clear yes to that. RFID is used to improve certain procedures, like vehicle returns, ticket verification, or in the medical field. The whole developement of it was based on rational thoughts, because the military surely wouldn’t have spent a lot of resources to develop it, just to hoax the German army. The same goes for its usage nowadays. If the chips are not needed, they are not implanted.

  • How do we treat people? Especially their data?

In general, RFID is used to treat people and goods as the mean to an end.  When a factory implements RFID, it does so to become more efficient, to save money. When a shop implements RFID as a security system, it does so to prevent theft, and therefore save money.  When a library implements it, it does so to prevent theft and speed up the processing time at the counters. Some might have noticed a pattern here. And the pattern behind the implementation of RFID is: To save money. Or make more money.

There are more than enough examples focusing of people as the mean to an end. Shops are starting to collect, and use the data about shopping habits of their customers, in order to improve their selection and layout. This is clearly a wrongful act in Kantianism.

If we take the above points into consideration, then it would be ethically correct to use RFID. But alas, the last point contradicts the theory. Therefore, the overall use is morally right. The way that data is collected and used, is wrong.

Social Contract Theory


“Morality consists in the set of rules, governing how people are to treat one
another, that rational people will agree to accept, for their mutual benefit,
on the condition that others follow those rules as well”

A very important word in this definition, is the word accept. When we enter a Social Contract as a society, we agree to accept what’s happening to us, our family and friends, simply everybody. But how do we know what’s really happening when we use RFID? Can somebody guarantee us that absolutely nothing happens, if we did not agree to it before? That is the tricky part about this technology. The RFID tags themselves can only hold a specific, fixed data, and on demand, share it. The morally wrong part is therefore not the tag. The tag can not spy on our shopping habits, ID, or credit cards. It lacks the software and capability to do more than it was designed to do. The problem lies elsewhere. Whenever an employee uses the ID card to enter a building, or room, the Reader has to connect to an in-, or external server and complete an identity and right of access check. Who says that the company doesn’t keep track of its employees? As I have mentioned above, stores are already tracking their customers. Most of them do so without the knowledge of their customers: The shoppers did not agree to it, and if they knew, would most likely decline to be spied on.

RFID is a very handy technology. It makes our daily life more comfortable, and helps us save time we can then spend with more important things: Friends, family, hobbies. Or as a student, studying and napping. On the one hand, it does save a lot of money, and shields us from a lot of inconveniences. Or can somebody imagine carrying dozens of keys around for all the doors on campus? The university ID cards do provide a nice service. As a society, we are inclined to go the easiest way when possible. If something helps us improve our quality of life, we gladly accept it with open arms. But because of the fact that chips can be hacked from 3 feet away, and that we do not know what ultimately happens with our data,  we are becoming more aware of these problems. We could argue that RFID is a very software-dependent technology, and can therefore never be completely secure. And that argument is right. As long as there have been encodings, there have been people trying to crack those.

As a result, the usage of RFID is ethically right, as long as the privacy of the user is not breached, and a certain level of security is given. Under these terms, a society can accept using RFID without any concerns.

Rule Utilitarianism


„Rule utilitarianism is the ethical theory that holds that we ought to adopt those
moral rules which, if followed by everyone, will lead to the greatest increase in total
happiness. Hence, a rule utilitarian applies the Principle of Utility to moral rules, while
an act utilitarian applies the Principle of Utility to individual moral actions.“

Getting to an ethical conclusion with the above quote in mind is rather simple. Rule Utilitarianism concerns the majority of a society. If something makes the whole society happier than it was before, it is ethically right. As stated above, RFID is a pretty neat thing. It does make us happier. At least the majority. Of course, there are always people against a new technology, who trouble themselves with security and privacy issues. But they are a very small minority. And the average citizen doesn’t think about privacy issues that much anyway. If we take all that into account, we have happy citizens, a happy economy, and a happy government. By applying the rules of this ethical theory, we also do not have to bother every time we use RFID and ask ourselves if it is ethically right, or wrong, to use it. Because it is ethically right to use it.


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