Rob van Kranenburg at ‘How I learned to love RFID’

On the 20th May, Rob van Kranenburg talked at How I learned to love RFID in HMKV in Dortmund, Germany.

This is a short summary of a huge presentation on RFID issues, that covered many valuable topics including local activism, EU policy on ubiquitous computing, participatory culture and distributed computing. Rob seems to be someone that thinks many times faster than he talks, and has so many valuable things to say, that it’s very difficult to succinctly summarise his presentation.

Rob van Kranenburg lecture at HMKV, Dortmund.


Few people talk about genetically modified foods anymore, genetic modification is now something that is talked about in fashion circles as a creative technology. The field has taken about 10 years to get to the point where the discussion is no longer about ethics but about fashion.

In the case of RFID, we are perhaps at the beginning of this process: RFID has become Smart Cards, Near Field Communication, M2M, etc. There is a huge re-branding effort going on, and there is little debate about using Smart Cards for public transport for instance.

We are dealing not just with technology, protocols or standards: but a context: a deadlock between technology and the environment. From the technology of the pen onwards there has been tension about externalising what should be internal. Distributing information to the environment implies that we trust the environment. But people have a deep, deep mistrust of the environment. It is also very hard to come to terms with something that has a 100% memory, we are all highly analogue.

In an experiment to probe this mistrust The Watch out team was welcomed to a small town in Netherlands: to watch out for everyday things. The enthusiasm with which they were welcomed was scary, see this quote from the above link:

“The idea of this performance like intervention was to draw feedback of the kind that would get the joke, that would be aimed at the experienced top down disciplining process going on. What happened instead was far more interesting but also far more disturbing. Whenever they were approached with a question like what kind of organization are you from, they’d reply: the government. We are the Watch Out Team, a new government sponsored initiative. At the market where they dished out watch out umbrella stickers to grateful umbrella holders I overheard a daughter telling her mother: “They should have done this much sooner!””

RFID and the EU

I will not see the liberty of citizens and their fundamental rights being compromised
Viviane Reding

The EU sees RFID as a key technology that will shape the age of the Ubiquitous Network Society. RFID tags will be nodes in most future ubiquitous IT systems, and the glue that binds ubiquitous computing together.

Behind this vision, they claim a strong social concern. Can this intention be upheld when we are in the midst of a ‘war on terror’ and RFID is a perfect candidate for tracking and control?

But overall the EU seems to be doing a pretty good job of scoping out the issues of RFID, and aiming towards world governance of RFID issues.

How should we deal with privacy?

It is naive to say that RFID tags do not contain information, and thus cannot be linked to individuals: that disregards the whole history of data mining. Transparency is important, individuals should certainly have access to the information that their tags carry. This view has been fuelled by the Nokia phone that reads and writes tags.

EMF leakage will also be a huge problem. One approach would be to specify zones for different kinds of sensors, how do we solve this visually? Digital territory, digital bubbles, various mediascapes, seamless technology, networked objects, etc.

We need to design for emergence: the behaviour of an agent cannot be entirely pre-programmed: we need to launch and learn. We also need better interactions and relationships, opening up space for more consumer control. Interestingly, and perhaps problematically, there is currently no competitor/predator for the ubiquitous computing model.

Changing dynamics of society

A digital network turns civilians into professional amateurs. We see a growth of informal networks operating between a formal policy level, and a idiosyncratic everyday life. As an example, the browser has drastically disrupted the dynamics of society, from house buying to local politics to personal relationships. We are seeing a revolution from below. We cannot hand over ubiquitous connectivity and expect people to stay the same.

To probe this, a scenario was created, depicting the death of the EU in 12 steps which shows that Europe is a dying dynamic. People are being more pro-active in local planning, new business models disrupting existing businesses (real estate for instance), and the localised tax system becoming increasingly irrelevant. It was particularly interesting to start to make this link between bottom-up, participatory culture and the distributed technologies like RFID.


Rob has just completed a report on RFID with co-authors Matt Ward and Gaynor Backhouse. It’s a great overview of RFID technology and use:

“This TechWatch report provides a brief discussion of these issues as well as a detailed examination of RFID technology, including some of the current uses within research, administration and teaching and learning. The report also includes an overview of the significance of RFID as an enabling technology towards achieving the ‘seamless’ and ‘calm’ vision of ubiquitous computing, the role of the Internet of Things, and plots a future trajectory for RFID development within the wider context of wireless, networked environments.”

Download the report here.

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  2. FoeBud: How we learned to stop RFID FoeBud are a German group of privacy activists that has has a long history of public interventions in privacy and RFID. Rena Tangens and Padeluun presented their work at the recent workshop How I......
  3. Internet of Things booklet Rob van Kranenburg is creating what looks like an interesting critique of ambient technology and the all-seeing network of RFID: “The Internet of Things is the second issue in the series of Network Notebooks.......
  4. RFID & the internet of things Julian Bleecker, Arie Altena and I will be participating at the Mediamatic workshop on RFID & The Internet of Things, 11-13 September in Amsterdam. If RFID becomes an open web-based platform, and users can......
  5. RFID, logistics and material flow On the final day of How I learned to love RFID we visited the Fraunhofer institute for material flow and logistics. The institute concentrates on supply chain, logistic and robotic applications. They also foster......

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