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by Rebekah Ernst, student writer

On the other hand, what if you could recover lost or stolen items by tracking their location?
These are potential applications of Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology, an automatic data-capture technology that uses tracking chips embedded in products.

Many of the world’s largest manufacturing companies would like to replace the bar code with these chips.

RFID is grouped under the broad category of automatic identification technologies, which includes bar codes, optical character readers, and some biometric technologies (i.e. retinal scans). RFID can be used with almost any object, each item would carry its own unique information in the form of an embedded chip. This chip transmits a signal to reader devices as well as other products with similar chips.

RFID is not a new technology and has been used for more than a decade by many companies, but its use was limited by the cost of implementation.

In order to provide a unique ID number for an endless number of objects across the globe, RFID uses a numbering scheme called EPC, which stands for Electronic Product Code. While it is divided into numbers that identify the manufacturer and product type, RFID goes further to use an extra set of numbers to mark each unique item. This “license plate” includes the item in the EPCglobal Network.

The RFID Journal gives a basic description of how the EPCglobal Network will enable companies to share data in real time using RFID technology: “When Company A ships a pallet full of soft drinks, the tags on the cases and pallet are scanned as the shipment leaves, and software is used to automatically let Company B know the shipment has left the warehouse. Company B can look up data associated with the serial numbers on the shipment and learn what’s coming, when it will arrive, and so on.”

While RFID advocates focus on inventory and supply chain efficiency, others have concerns regarding personal privacy. RFID could allow marketers to monitor the details, every consumer move, even tracking how consumers use the product in their daily life. It could even allow doctors to keep track of their patients’ over-the-counter medicine purchases.

Starbucks Corp. may distribute supplier cards with RFID chips that would give delivery people access to stores at night, while recording who is coming and going.

Brandi Taylor, an HPU student and Starbucks employee, believes this is a good idea. “Employee relations are a high priority for Starbucks, and it requires a balance giving responsibility while protecting Starbucks’ assets. This technology will hold employees accountable for their actions on the job.”

At this point, there is no law that requires manufacturers to inform consumers when they’ve put an RFID chip into a product or its packaging. Unless you want to invest in a costly reader, the only way to know if there is one is if you physically identify it. Fortunately, the technology is still at a stage in development where it has a fairly visible antenna, and you can disable the chip by disconnecting it from its antenna.

Levi Strauss is executing RFID trials using external RFID “hang tags” that can be clipped from the clothes. They report that their focus is on inventory management, not customer tracking. However, the company isn’t guaranteeing how it will use RFID in the future.

“ Companies like Levi Strauss are painting their RFID trials as innocuous,” said Katherine Albrecht, the director of CASPIAN (Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering), an organization she founded in 1999 to advocate free-market, consumer-based solutions to the problem of retail privacy invasion.

“ But this technology is extraordinarily dangerous,” Albrecht continued. “There is a reason why we have asked companies not to spychip clothing. Few things are more intimately connected with an individual than the clothes they wear.”

“ Once clothing manufacturers begin applying RFID to hang tags, the floodgates will open, and we’ll soon find these things sewn into the hem of our jeans,” Albrecht added. “The problem with RFID is that it is tracking technology, plain and simple.”

It’s inevitable that the government and law enforcement would jump on the bandwagon to keep tabs on citizens. For example, if RFID tags were embedded in money, the government could be able to track bank notes through every transaction. This would eliminate the anonymity that cash allows consumers in their daily transactions.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is looking at RFID technology that can read government-issued documents from up to 25 feet away, pinpoint pedestrians on street corners, and identify people as they drive by in their car.

“ While the RFID is directed at border security, we’re very concerned the government will use this tracking technology in our driver’s licenses,” said Liz McIntyre, co-author with Albrecht of Spychips: How Major Corporations and Government Plan to Track Your Every Move with RFID. “Imagine having a remotely readable national ID that can be scanned by the government as you drive by or walk down the street.”

In The Guardian, science correspondent Alok Jha succinctly addressed the RFID conflict:”Retailers have hailed the technology as the ‘holy grail’ of supply chain management, but civil liberties groups argue that the so-called ‘spy chips’ are an invasion of consumers’ privacy and could be used as a covert surveillance device.”

One can only hope we can find a balance between the inevitable progress of technology and the rights of citizens to have some control over their identity and anonymity.


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