The European Commission has sketched out guidelines designed to help get RFID (radio frequency identification) technologies up and running in the European Union, but stopped short of proposing formal legislation in the area.
The draft text aims to help the makers of RFID technology, as well as potential users, introduce the technology without harming privacy rights.
The Commission recommends that producers of RFID chips conduct a privacy assessment before marketing their wares, while industries that plan to use the chips should sign up to a code of conduct outlining how the chips should be used. Industries using RFID technology should agree on a symbol to attach to the goods that carry the chips to alert customers to their presence, the Commission proposed. It also suggests that the chips should deactivate automatically at the point of purchase.
RFID chips used with perishable items such as milk could alert consumers if products go bad, but such a service should be optional, said Commission spokesman Martin Selmayr.
"You should be able to decide whether to allow your milk carton to communicate with your fridge, for example," he said at a news conference.
The Commission has opened an eight-week consultation, which ends on April 25, with interested parties, including industry, consumer and privacy groups. It hopes to adopt the recommendations in the summer.
Ensuring that the potentially invasive technology respects people's right to privacy is essential if it is to take off, Selmayr said.
"The new technology will only take off in a sound environment where data protection is safeguarded," he said.
RFID could revolutionise logistics operations by allowing companies to trace their goods from the factory to the shop shelf.
Three kinds of RFID chips are currently in use in Europe:
- Passive RFID tags do not need a power supply of their own; the minute tension induced from a radio frequency signal emitted by the reader is sufficient to activate their circuit and to send out short digital information streams in response. Typically, this information includes a unique identification number that points to an entry in a data base.
- Semi-passive RFID tags have built-in batteries and do not require energy induced from the reader to power the microchip. This allows them to function with much lower signal power levels and over greater distances than passive tags. They are, however, considerably more expensive
- Active RFID tags have an on-board power-supply, usually a battery, of their own. This allows for more complex circuits to be powered and for more functionality.
Six-hundred million RFID tags, almost all passive, were sold in the EU in 2006, according to Commission research. That is predicted to rise to around 300 billion by 2016, the Commission said.