The Coming Privacy
Storm Over RFID Chips
By Mike Banks
Consumers are being tracked, catalogued surveilled and their "data"
is being warehoused, filed and mapped with increasing detail. This is
happening without our knowledge or consent. This invasive spying is
currently confined to loading docks at WalMart, Target and Metro Future
stores, but is ready to follow you home if you aren't careful about RFID
RFID stands for Radio Frequency Identification and is a term that
will become increasingly well known as usage of the new technology becomes
pervasive. There is no question that the tiny chips, which enable tracking
of physical goods from the assembly line to warehouse to retail outlet to
checkstand, will replace the barcodes previously used for that purpose.
Some RFID chips are so tiny, they are nearly indistiguishable
from dust in many cases.
See Photo link.
These dust sized RFID chips are capable of transmitting their own
SKU (Salës Keeping Unit), the same info currently encoded in barcodes,
distances of up to 20 feet to an "RFID Reader". But that's not all
these diminuitive little chips can do. They are capable of sending a
unique serial number that can identify the item it's embedded in - down to
it's date and location of manufacture. Barcodes were limited to carrying
information that identified classes of products. RFID carries information
equivalent to the product DNA, while allowing a number for every item on
When that item passes an "RFID reader" at the
manufacturer's door, the tracking system knows the item has passed out of
the building. Another reader signals that it has now passed into a train
or plane to be shipped to a warehouse, where another reader tracks arrival
and storage information, then successive readers know it passes to truck,
grocery shelf, retail check-stand and out the door. All of this can now be
accomplished without opening containers, leading to huge cost savings
throughout the "supply chain".
Privacy issues don't arise until consumers link that chain.
Walmart is now requiring their 100 largest suppliers to use RFID
tags at the pallet level. Meaning that those tags are currently in use to
identify and track groups of products as they arrive at the Walmart
warehouse up until shelving at the giant retailer. Some products, such as
Gillette razors, had been testing individual item tracking up until final
sale and removal from the Walmart store. Privacy advocates slowed that
practice by launching a
If the privacy concerns over tracking of a single product through
the store to sale caused slowing of implementation of this technology,
what can we expect when every product is RFID tagged? There is no
doubt this is coming and not in the distant future, but within the next 5
years or so. The US Department of Defense is now requiring all
vendors to use RFID technology and embed tags in products sold to the US
military by next year.
Clearly there will be little or no outcry from military and
government personnel about privacy invading technology since government is
rarely expected to respect privacy "in-house". But if all military
vendors are compelled to use RFID chips in every item used in every one of
the millïons of supplies sold to and used by the military - by next year,
2005 - then there is little doubt that the entire US goverment will soon
implement this same policy for all items purchased by Uncle Sam and used
by government employees.
More and more giant retailers like Walmart are requiring
suppliers to use RFID technology. The German chain Metro Group, which
operates 2300 stores in Europe and Asia has demanded the same of their
suppliers. Metro Group has gone even further with RFID to operate what
they call the "Store of the future" where shoppers needn't remove
items from shopping carts to pay for them. They simply pass by RFID
readers and all items will be tallied and paid for. Metro stores provide
RFID tagged "loyalty cards" to consumers that identifies those
shoppers by reading within purses and wallets as those consumers enter and
leave any of the 2300 Metro stores.
Week Article on Metro Future Stores Protest
Target Stores announced this month that they too, would be
requiring suppliers to RFID tag at the pallet and case level by 2005.
Privacy loving Americans may not stand for the "Big Brother"
implications of a system like that used by the German retail chain. An
anti-RFID web site has been launched by privacy advocates and named "Spychips"
for the ability of the chips to track consumers and link their buying
habits to other personally identifiable information.
A recent piece by technology commentator Jeffrey Harrow has a
chilling description of how RFID technology might betray consumers
movements and link their buying habits in a huge database. Harrow is a
consultant and analyst of emerging technology. He often comments on
privacy implications related to implementation of emerging technology
Harrow paints a harrowing picture of RFID readers.
"The issue is that these many sensors . . . would
also note the passing of your car key's unique ID; the unique ID of your
driver's license, and even the unique ID of each and every dollar bill in
your wallet. ... And if all the chains' main computers and those of
smaller stores made this mass of random information available to say, a
Marketing firm, or to other stores along your path (for a fee, of course),
or to a government organization upon demand, then a very detailed picture
of "You" - your travel habits, your spending habits (remember those
individually tagged dollar bills?), almost everything about you, could be
mixed, matched and dissected in ways that you might, or might not, agree
with. This might be the ultimate "data mining" warehouse."
RFID is publicly discussed only by technology enthusiasts like
Harrow and a few privacy advocates concerned about the implications of
that "data mining warehouse". But as those RFID chips supplant
barcodes over the next couple of years, we'll be hearing from privacy
advocates when the Big Brother implications become clearer to consumers.
Mark your calendar for early in 2005 and prepare to weather the coming
storm of privacy concerns that could reach hurricane proportions.
About The Author
Mike Banks Valentine is a web journalist covering privacy issues
where you can learn about Automotive Event Data Recorders or EDR's,
Computer SpyWare, Identity Theft, Surveillance, HIPAA, COPPA, TIA, GLB and
privacy implications of the USA Patriot Act.