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Free Software Advocate Attracts U.N. Security After Blocking RFID Tags

GNU founder Richard Stallman wrapped his RFID-equipped badge in aluminum foil at the U.N. World Summit on the Information Society, and found his travel blocked by U.N. security.

TechWeb News | November 22, 2005
By K.C. Jones

A GNU expert's talk was welcomed at the U.N. World Summit on the Information Society. His stance on RFID was not.

Richard Stallman, GNU founder and featured speaker at the gathering in Tunisia last week, was held by U.N. security after wrapping his identification badge in foil, according to Bruce Perens, vice president of developer relations and policy for SourceLabs.

Stallman, who opposes RFID because of the technology's potential for privacy invasions, objected to wearing the badge because it could track him as he moved around at the summit. Organizers said the technology would not be used since objections were raised over use at the 2003 summit in Geneva, according to Perens.

Stallman was still in Tunisia Tuesday and could not be reached for comment.

Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation, reportedly unwrapped his badge only to pass through readers.

He briefly addressed the RFID issue during a speaker's panel, passed a roll of aluminum foil around the room and encouraged several people to follow suit, according to Perens' eyewitness account. U.N. security watched in the crowded room until speeches and an open discussion were finished.

Perens said he left to speak with reporters and heard later from several attendees that security would not allow Stallman to leave. Once they allowed Stallman to exit, they prevented him from entering another room, where he was scheduled to appear, according to Perens.

"I got to the room just as the panel was about to start, at the moment that the problem suddenly evaporated and Richard was allowed to enter," Perens wrote on his company's Web site. "No doubt some of our UN hosts had been dealing with security during those two hours, and eventually got an order from a high-enough officer or something. We'll probably never know how, but imagine the headlines: Kofi Annan Frees Richard Stallman."

Perens said Stallman recounted the incident as people gathered for the next panel.

Representatives from the summit could not be reached for comment and did not immediately respond to an e-mail inquiry.

During an interview Tuesday, Perens said he understood the need for intense security at a world summit taking place a mere train ride from Libya. He said he believes Stallman also understood it, but a bar code system could have been used. Perens said he shares some of Stallman's concerns about RFID.

"There really is something to this RFID issue," he said. "People aren't really thinking about just what is happening when you put one on and that there could be a record of who was in what room with whom."

Perens said he was at a company conference where the technology was used at entrance rooms for seminars to determine whether employees actually attended or spent the time loafing.

"I think that's probably more of an intrusion than an employee should have to put up with even though it's the employer's time," he said.

Perens said he also sees potential for government abuse of the technology.

"Much as the president is there to protect the people of the United States, I can't say that I approve of his politics" he said. "Thus, when tools like this are in people like his hands, I'm concerned."

Perens explained that Stallman doesn't want to be subtle about sticking with his beliefs.

"He won't have a cellphone because he doesn't have one yet that runs on free software," he said. "Richard is willing to put up with a good deal of inconvenience to stay true to his own beliefs."

Stallman is opposed to U.S. plans for RFID in passports next year. Perens said that he has heard they may come in foil jackets to prevent abuse and theft.

Though foil could be crafted as an antenna to amplify radio signals, Perens believes that completely wrapping an object in foil does block them.

"Of course, the devil's in the details," he said


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