Azara Blog: Radio frequency ID tags

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Date published: 2006/04/09

The BBC says:

Supermarkets have already brought everything under the sun under one roof, and along the way been accused of denuding the High Street of butcher, baker and candlestick-maker.

Now they are introducing a new technology that some say threatens a fundamental invasion of our privacy.

We are all familiar with barcodes, those product fingerprints that save cashiers the bother of keying in the code number of everything we buy.

Now, meet their replacement: the RFID tag, or radio frequency ID tag.

These smart labels consist of a tiny chip surrounded by a coiled antenna.

While barcodes need to be manually scanned, RFID simply broadcasts its presence and data to electronic readers.

It means the computer networks of companies can track the position and progress of billions of products on rail, road, sea and shelf.

Albrecht Von Truchsess, from the German supermarket chain Metro Group, which uses this technology, says: "RFID really brings a revolution to everything that is transported from one point to the other, and in the future you will have it really on everything.

"That means that we don't have to do anything while the goods are on the way from the production site to our stores. It is just done automatically."

For all the benefits the technology promises, the roll-out of RFID is in danger of being derailed by the public's perception of it.
[Internet pioneer Vint Cerf] told Click: "What everybody worries about is that these identifiers will be used not to keep track of the object, but of the person associated with the object and then there's a Big Brother scenario that everybody worries about.

"But when the economics get to the point where the readers are inexpensive and the chips are inexpensive, then you start to ask yourself who has the ability to read the chips and what do they do with the information?"

Metro sees RFID working for it by having food traceable back to the farm, queues cut to nothing, and shelves that shout when they are empty.

But with remotely readable tags on everything from boots to beans, is it the customers or what they buy that is being labelled?

Former Australian privacy commissioner Malcolm Crompton says: "If done wrongly, it really is possible that I can buy things in one shop and be tracked in another shop, that the data, once collected, stays there for someone to come in and collect and use under circumstances that I don't know about or that I don't approve of.

"I think that is when society is on a slippery slope."

The fear is that what we buy will be forever linked to us. In the nightmare scenario, an innocently discarded soft drink can could end up in what later becomes a crime scene.
One solution being floated is the idea of killing the code on the chip as customers leave the shop.

A reasonable summary of the good and bad points of RFID. Hopefully destroying the chips when consumers leave the shop is not dangerous or too expensive. Stores might well have to do so, and to prove they are not storing any information about the chip against the consumer in their IT systems, whether they like it or not, in order to alleviate consumer fears. Of course governments being governments might eventually require all goods to be so tagged, so that everything can be tracked permanently by them (never mind big business). Hey, it would help solve crimes, and who could be against that?

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