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Privacy questions arise as RFID hits stores

Wal-Mart Stores, Procter & Gamble and other big companies pushing the electronic tracking tags said they’d use them only in warehouses to more easily locate and account for stock arriving in cases and palettes. By the time the merchandise hit store shelves, they’d have removed the tags. The placement of tags on items consumers actually take home was projected to be at least 10 years away, last year’s argument went. Some said it may never happen if costs remained prohibitive.

Though relatively rare today, RFID tags are marching toward stores and shopping baskets across the country–raising questions about the implications for consumers. Also experimenting with RFID are Albertsons, Best Buy, Target, as well as European chains Metro and Tesco. Elizabeth Board, executive director of the public policy steering committee for EPCglobal said during a panel discussion:

There is a concern that EPC (tags) can be tracked everywhere and that retailers want to track you at all times of the day. It’s not realistic, but it has caused a lot of confusion.

She expects that fears about privacy invasion will continue to be a public relations problem for the technology. RFID supporters must do more to dispel the myths and misconceptions surrounding it.

Retailers and consumer-goods companies are hesitant to agree to removing tags from items at the time of purchase for several reasons. One reason is that RFID tags could help with returns by exposing people trying to get a refund for a product they never really bought, or one they purchased from another store.

One of the valid concerns about RFID is what companies plan to do with all the detailed data they’ll be able to collect about consumers, said Daniel Engles, director of research at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Auto-ID Lab, an RFID research group.

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2 comments to Privacy questions arise as RFID hits stores

  • Guy Herbert

    I find it hard to get worked up about RFID on consumer goods. Unless a specifically identifiable unit-tag is linked to a particular consumer in store records, then it is no more than an invisible bar-code. There’s in general no benefit to manufacturers or stores in distinguishing between units of the same product, though having more label-space for manufacturing batches would be handy for checking problems with returned goods.

    On the other hand, RFID explicitly used to track individuals is already in operation in Britain, with NO public fuss whatsoever. There’s no privacy lobby. Those of us to whom it is applicable and who refuse to participate in the system are substantially financially penalised–but not a peep from consumer bodies. The lack of reaction is at least as disqieting in my view as the application, because it shows what the authorities can get away with by making ID-control systematic but invisible. If anyone can’t think what I’m writing about, that’s an illustration of how uncontroversial this profoundly dangerous development has been in practice.

    See here.

  • I was aware that Oyster is used to track journeys – I didn’t know that it used RFID, though. Like you, I refuse to participate. My journey is my business and no one else’s.