TECH & INNOVATION

Radio tags may track shirts, razors, and shoppers

By Andy Sullivan, Reuters, 04/11/03

WASHINGTON Do you know what your underwear is saying about you?

Tiny wireless transmitters promise to link tires, razors and other everyday items to the Internet, creating a world where money actually talks and the walls really do have ears.

Marketing experts say the new technology, known as radio-frequency identification, or RFID, could revolutionize the retail industry as stores personalize service and manage inventory more efficiently.

But civil liberties advocates say the sensors could also create an Orwellian world where sales clerks and law-enforcement officials, with the wave of a wand, could find out the contents of a purse. Or the fact that you purchased your name-brand briefs for $10 on sale at a certain department store.

"When I found out about it, it chilled me more than anything else I've encountered," said consumer-privacy advocate Katherine Albrecht, a Harvard doctoral researcher who has called for a boycott of Italian fashion company Benetton , which is testing RFID technology for possible use.

First developed in World War Two as a way to help radar operators distinguish between friendly and enemy aircraft, RFID tags are already used to track cattle, identify lost pets and enable commuters to drive through tollbooths without pausing.

SENSORS IN DRESSING ROOM WALLS

At the sleek new Prada store in New York's tiny SoHo neighborhood, sensors in dressing-room walls can determine which clothes a customer is trying on and show whether they are available in other colors, sizes or fabrics.

The baseball card-sized tags cost about $4 each, making them expensive enough to be worth removing at the time of purchase and then re-attaching them to new products at the loading dock, a salesman said. As an anti-theft technology, RFID makes sense in a store where a simple T-shirt can sell for $400 and up.

Mass-market companies like Procter & Gamble and Nokia also plan to use RFID on consumer products to better manage inventory items as they are shipped from factory to retail outlet, replacing the utilitarian bar code with a system that assigns a unique 96-digit number to each individual bar of soap or toothbrush and broadcasts it within a three-foot radius.

The system could also make it possible for retailers to link product data -- where it was made and how much it cost -- with a list of a customer's other purchases.

As new tags shrink to the size of a grain of rice and unit costs plummet to 5 cents -- developments expected in the next year or so -- boosters envision a day when dirty shirts can tell washing machines how they should be laundered, and refrigerators place an order with the grocery store when the milk runs low. So says Mark Roberti, a journalist who tracks the technology at his RFID Journal Web site.

FISHBOWL SOCIETY?

One major Las Vegas casino is looking to embed tags in employee uniforms to make sure that thieves cannot infiltrate gaming floors by impersonating dealers, said James Hall, head of technology research at consulting firm Adventure.

"We are entering a world of what we call 'reality online"' in which every manufactured item is linked to the Internet, Hall told executives at a recent conference in Germany.

But in an era when retailers track customer purchases and compile detailed dossiers on their shopping habits and life styles, RFID technology could lead to a fishbowl society in which personal privacy does not exist, critics said last week at the Computers, Freedom and Privacy conference in New York.

Stores could determine shoppers' identities from tags in their clothing and determine whether they are likely to buy anything based on their previous consumer behavior, they said.

Peeping Toms could use RFID scanners to learn what type of underwear nearby women are wearing, they said, while advertisers could check recent grocery purchases of television viewers to determine what ads to show on their sets.

"The interesting thing about technology is once it's deployed, people come out of the woodwork and say, 'What other uses are there for it?"' said computer consultant Richard M. Smith.

Technologists say they are not blind to these concerns. Privacy advocate Simson Garfinkel, working with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's AutoID Center, has proposed an "RFID Bill of Rights" that would let consumers know when and why RFID tags are being used and give them the right to deactivate the tags at checkout.

'KILLING' THE CHIPS

The industry-backed AutoID Center also promotes a standard that would allow cashiers to "kill" the chips by blowing their fuses with a jolt of electricity upon purchase. Benetton has also said it will allow consumers themselves to disable the tags if it decides to implement them.

"Companies know they're not going to get any benefits if they try to ram this down people's throats," said the RFID Journal's Roberti.

But such voluntary efforts may not be enough, Albrecht said, as the massive amounts of data collected by RFID tags may prove too tempting for marketers and law enforcement. What's needed are laws to regulate usage, such as one soon to be introduced in the Massachusetts state legislature, she said.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

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