the Insiders


August 9, 2010 3:49 PM


The RFID Myth

When I tried to register for an RFID conference last year, I was told press was not allowed....

When I tried to register for an RFID conference last year, I was told press was not allowed.

The stated reason: The brands speaking were afraid of negative press about their use of the technology, which has been called "spy chips" by consumer advocate Katherine Albrecht.

Her criticisms surfaced again in a recent article in The Wall Street Journal about retailers, such as Wal-Mart and American Apparel, that are using the chips on items of clothing to prevent stockouts. I am surprised the privacy concerns were mentioned high up in the article, in the opening paragraph, since they're not entirely credible.

Albrecht's Internet-based organization, CASPIAN (Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering), is one of a few to criticize RFID in retail. Its Web site claims to have thousands of members, but doesn't state the exact number.

I'm glad someone is looking out for consumers, and I appreciate CASPIAN's campaign against loyalty cards, which I find, as a shopper, can sometimes be a nuisance. Unfortunately, that fight has not drawn as much attention as the one against RFID. CASPIAN's protests and boycotts of Benetton, Gillette, Wal-Mart, Tesco, Metro and others seem to have given the radio technology a mythical but powerful reputation it can't seem to shake.

Apparently, it's all too easy to believe that tiny computer chips embedded in items of clothing are making it possible for the government or other nefarious entities to track our whereabouts from afar at any time and from any place.

But that's not the case. The chips contain a bar code plus a unique serial number that probably doesn't mean anything outside the retailer's store and can't easily be read from a distance of more than a few inches or feet. In any case, the chips can easily be removed, thrown away or covered with tin foil. As for using the technology inside the store to track customer movements for marketing, that is certainly possible, although shoppers are already closely watched for security reasons.

Meanwhile, RFID tags are already used in employee identification badges, commuter passes and driver's licenses, but so far, at least, CASPIAN has been primarily concerned with their use in retail. In any case, RFID is not being used in these applications to monitor all citizens from a single point, or in a way that's radically different from how magnetic strips or ID cards are already used. We are already tracked whenever we check into a hotel, and there is always potential to monitor citizens through our use of credit cards, ATM machines, security cameras and at airports, train stations, bridges and toll gates.

Albrecht said she is concerned about all of the above, and avoids using credit cards and ATMs when possible. She said she worries that retailers are putting the chips into place while the government is putting the readers in place, and one day the big-brother scenario could come to pass.

"Does Wal-Mart want to tyrannize and oppress the planet? No, but they're paving the way for someone who will, and frankly I think that's irresponsible," she said.

Cell phones could be the next RFID. Each one emits a unique activity pattern that Best Buy is using to locate people in the store and send them special offers and other messages related to where they are standing. But Best Buy will send the messages only with the shopper's permission.

RFID is starting to sound quaint in the era of Facebook, Foursquare, Swipley and other mash-ups of social media, mobile and gaming, where we all eagerly share with our friends what book or dress we just bought, that we finally made it to the gym and where we're eating dinner. The difference is, now we decide what to say and when. It's all about us. Well, most of the time.

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