You should know better

Reaction to news about plans for electronic car licences has shown that not all South Africans accept technological innovation without question. Is the concern valid, or just paranoia?
By Warwick Ashford, ITWeb London correspondent
Johannesburg, 16 Sept 2005

South Africans are usually described as being quick to embrace technologies, but the strong and mainly negative response to the prospect of electronic car licences being introduced to the country, seems to suggest otherwise.

Although surprised by resistance to radio frequency identification (RFID) technology in the US and Europe because of privacy concerns, the outcry prompted by a recent ITWeb article about plans to test RFID-enabled car licences in SA came as a real shock.

Aren`t South Africans normally among the early adopters of new technologies? I have always thought so and boasted to overseas people how tech-savvy we are. Was I wrong?

Despite the increasingly frequent references internationally and locally, it seems RFID is still a technology that is not widely understood, not even by some ITWeb readers who should know better. Fortunately that is easily remedied, so please read on.

Privacy concerns

Despite the increasingly frequent references internationally and locally, it seems RFID is still a technology that is not widely understood.

Warwick Ashford, portals managing editor

The biggest concerns about RFID-based electronic vehicle identification (EVI) are around privacy. While this is a natural concern, why should an electronic number plate (ENP) be a bigger threat to privacy than conventional number plates?

In reality, an RFID-enabled ENP is just a number. The only difference is that an ENP cannot be read by the naked eye, so in a sense, it is in fact more "private" than traditional number plates. A nice little irony, I think.

As far as I know, there has never been any resistance to traditional number plates, so what`s all the fuss about ENPs? The only real difference is that with RFID-enabled ENPs, the globally unique reference number can be "read" at speed with readers that use radio waves to pick up the number being broadcast by an RFID chip and antenna on vehicle windscreens.

An ENP system developed and tested by Pretoria-based iPico allows multiple vehicles to be read at speeds up to 250km/h from a range of 6m. The system is based on the company`s ultra-high frequency passive RFID technology.

Although many are concerned about privacy, one enlightened reader points out that only those with the correct equipment will be able to read ENPs and like conventional number plates, only those authorised to do so will be able to access details of the licence holder.

Fraud concerns

Another big concern is fraud, but in reality RFID-enabled EVI systems are far less prone to fraud than existing systems. Every RFID tag broadcasts a globally unique number that is associated with vehicle details such as make and colour on a central database. If RFID readers pick up any number that does not appear on the database, appears more than once, or does not match up with the car details, law enforcers will be alerted immediately.

Prototypes of RFID-enabled ENPs have also been designed to be tamper-proof and will be destroyed if anyone attempts to remove one from a vehicle, adding another level of protection and assurance. Any vehicle failing to return an ENP reading will also trigger an alert.

At least some readers were able to recognise that a real-time data collection system using RFID technology could benefit the country by improving law enforcement capabilities, particularly regarding vehicle-related crimes such as car theft and hijacking.

While some critics have claimed RFID is easy to mimic, the opposite is true. RFID gives a much higher level of protection for law abiding road users than current systems.

Pure paranoia

There are strong indications that many South Africans suffer from paranoia about anyone knowing their whereabouts. Many readers objected vehemently to the idea that someone would be able to track their movements.

One reader says he would never even fit an anti-theft tracking device because he also considers that to be an invasion of his privacy. I wonder whether he thinks of his mobile phone as an invasion of his privacy? Another irony is that he and many others like him probably do use mobile phones and every time they connect to the network, they are making their location known to someone.

The fact is, anyone rejecting RFID on the grounds of privacy would have to give up using a mobile phone because RFID provides no better tracking ability than cellular phone technology, just ask Donovan Moodley. One of the strongest links between Moodley and the murder of Leigh Matthews were the mobile phone calls he made that placed him at the crime scene.

Tracking vs spotting

Strictly speaking, RFID technology does not allow tracking. Only RFID readers at specific places can pick up RFID numbers at specific times. Joining these "spotting" points would map out only a rough trail of a moving RFID tag.

Similar to mobile phone "spotting" as the device switches from one broadcast mast to the next, another smart reader pointed out there are also several other ways our whereabouts can be "spotted" and used collectively to track our movements. For example, every time you use your credit card or debit card, someone can see your exact location at that specific time.

No one seems to mind their bank knowing their whereabouts, so why would anyone object to law enforcement officers having access to the same kind of information? As one reader observes, only those with something to hide would be adverse to this type of technology.

Counting cost

Cost is another big concern, but according to a business case analysis put together by a local developer of an RFID-enabled ENP system, iPico Holdings, there are several ways in which such a system would pay for itself in under three years if implemented on a national scale.

The most obvious way an ENP system would pay for itself is by increasing the number of registered and licensed vehicles on the country`s roads through improved detection of offenders, thereby increasing earnings from registration and licensing fees. Improved detection of stolen vehicles intended for smuggling into neighbouring countries is another example of how an ENP system could demonstrate a return on investment.

Improved prevention of car theft and recovery of stolen vehicles is likely to result in the reduction of insurance premiums. Savings on insurance costs could easily offset any expense incurred by the individual for RFID-enabled licences.

Opportunity vs risk

On the back of a national ENP system, local entrepreneurs can develop a wide variety of services and systems such as parking payment and access, toll payment, vehicle tracking, traffic monitoring and control, and border crossing monitoring. All of these will create new employment opportunities.

While it may be true that allocating the money for ENP systems to crime-prevention would lower crime levels, that`s all it would do. It would not provide any of the other benefits of ENP systems.

Among the objectors, there are a fair number quoting chapter 13 of the Bible`s Book of Revelation that refers to the "mark of the Beast", but seeing this discussion is around car number plates and not RFID chips being implanted under people`s skin, I fail to see the relevance.

While not advocating that we as a society accept technological innovation without question, surely it would make sense to ensure we have a complete understanding of something before rejecting it? The number of opportunities an RFID-enabled ENP system could provide our country is too vast to be ignored. Surely the benefits far outweigh the risk, real or imagined?

At least five other developing countries are evaluating EVI systems, so now`s the time to get real about this application of RFID and get involved to ensure it is not stifled, but implemented responsibly with all the important safeguards in place.