In early October an IT article in the Guardian newspaper (www.guardian.co.uk/online) described a network intended to connect many of the millions of smart tags already in use around the world. It seems that about a 1,000 delegates from the retail, technology and academic worlds gathered in Chicago last September to launch the Electronic Product Code (EPC) network. It is operated by the Auto ID Center, a global consortium of retailers and research centers, including the University of Cambridge, and is based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The aim is to replace the global bar code with a universal system that can provide a unique number for every object in the world.
Not everyone is thrilled about the idea of tiny chips being carried by just about anything that can be made. The Guardian’s story quotes Chris McDermott, described as a 34-year-old family man and PR manager from Swindon, England, who has never protested outside retail stores before. He has no problem with companies using RFID products for supply chain management, but fears we will lose our privacy unless the tags are kept off individual goods. “They could be the ultimate surveillance tool,” he says.
In a BBC TV breakfast program he later reiterated the by now famous example involving Tesco, Britain’s largest supermarket chain. It extended RFID from its warehouses with a ground-breaking trial of a so-called “smart shelf” to deter retail theft. The shelf contained packets of Gillette Mach3 razor blades, each carrying a smart tag. There was also an antenna reader and, controversially, a small CCTV camera. Anyone removing the blades would trigger the camera and a picture would be taken. It did not take long before protesters gathered outside the store in Cambridge. They forced Gillette to abandon the trial, although Tesco continues to run in-store trials of tagged products “for monitoring stock levels.”
McDermott is certainly not alone. A dedicated band of global anti-RFID activists called CASPIAN (Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering) and founded by Katherine Albrecht, a Harvard doctoral candidate, is making plenty of waves. Earlier this year she became involved in a similar smart-shelf scenario, this time at Wal-Mart’s store in Brockton, MA, again involving Gillette razor blades. Since then her campaigning group has generated plenty of column inches in the US media and elsewhere. In a Business Week profile of her in July, Wal-Mart spokesman Tom Williams denied that the shelf was ever put into use beyond the pilot trial. He says the retail giant has no plans to use RFID technology in its stores in the foreseeable future. Instead, it’s focusing on implementing RFID by 2005 to track inventory shipped from suppliers to distribution centers and out to stores.
Although described as a “David and Goliath” victory, CASPIAN is not dropping its guard: “We are cautious about recent statements by Gillette, particularly the assurance that RFID tags will not appear on consumer products until at least 2013,” says Albrecht. “We want to be sure that their statements are not simply a convenient way to pacify the overwhelming number of consumers who have written and called Gillette to tell them they’re outraged and are switching brands.” (For the full story, log on to CASPIAN’s web site, www.stoprfid.com.)
Apparently the Auto ID Center (www.autoidcenter.org) is aware of these concerns and will seek to find ways to overcome privacy fears. One idea is to place a notice on the packaging informing buyers that an RFID tag is present, and giving them the choice to remove the tag once they have bought the product. It concedes that if the tag remains in place there is still a need for business to assure consumers that controls are in place as to how information is gathered and how it is used. Perhaps a satisfactory solution to the data privacy problem will be found, perhaps not. Guidelines are being established by some heavyweight international trade and political organizations, including the European Commission and Japan’s METI technology institute. As far as converters are concerned, RFID smart labels, tickets and tags may well take off during the next decade, but they and their customers cannot ignore the highly emotive “Big Brother” issue these products have generated.