The Coming Privacy Storm Over RFID Chips
by Mike Banks Valentine
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.
RFID chips are tiny, less than a millimeter square, they are nearly
indistiguishable from dust in many cases.
These dust sized RFID chips are capable of transmitting their
own SKU (Sales 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 the planet!
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 checkstand and
out the door. All of this can now be accomplished without opening
containers, leading to huge cost savings throughout the "supply
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.
Walmart is also tracking prescription drugs with RFID chips in
the packaging and labels. 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 boycott of Gillette over the use of the tags at the individual item level.
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 millions 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.
Metro Future Stores faced a public outcry and a boycott that lead
to picketing of the store on February 28, 2004 that eventually lead
to the withdrawal of the
store loyalty card with the embeded RFID chips.
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
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
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."
complete Harrow Technology Report article
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
are taking notice of the public concerns about privacy and
have begun proposing legislation
that calls for privacy issues of RFID tracking to be addressed
before widespread adoption. Privacy advocates are calling for
the disabling of tags as they leave the store to prevent further
Mike Banks Valentine is a web journalist covering privacy issues
where you can learn about Automotive
Event Data Recorders or EDR's, Computer
TIA, GLB and privacy implications
of the USA Patriot Act.