The controversial radio frequency identification, or RFID, technology took another blow last week. A company planning to use the tracking technology came under fire from a consumer privacy group. That company: Gillette.
Gillette, best known for its razors, was testing a program that would allow retailers to track their razor inventory using RFID tags. When a product was removed from the shelf, the change in radio signal from the tag would trigger a nearby camera to snap a picture.
While Gillette claims the benefit would be for retailers to track down stolen merchandise, consumer privacy advocates it poses a serious invasion of privacy.
One particular group, Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering, says that Gillette’s use of the technology enables spying on people through the products they buy. They even set up a Web site that encourages people to boycott the company with the slogan “I’d rather grow a beard.”
Gillette is just latest in a string of companies to come under fire for using personalized tracking technologies. Benetton rolled back its plans to tag its clothing last April.
RFID, which is not a new technology, is taking it on the chin when it comes to retail use. This is troubling to an industry that was hoping to replace bar codes with RFID technology. However, as my colleague Ann Bednarz pointed out in a recent article, there are distinct differences between the two systems:
“Whereas bar codes must be read one at a time by devices within line of sight, RFID tags can be read when they’re sitting in closed boxes.”
And when they’ve left stores. This difference is what has privacy groups grumbling and forcing retailers to retreat from their ambitious plans.
The razor maker says it will now focus its RFID plans on its supply chain management, helping to locate cases of razors and shipments, not individual packages. Already cargo companies are using the technology in this manner without angering privacy groups.
The question is will this latest development be a setback to the RFID industry, which spoke about plans to embed chips in everything from clothing to automobiles. Advocacy groups are clear on their stance that no technology should infringe on a person’s right to privacy and add location-tracking devices of any kind – no matter the purpose – is a violation.
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Network World, 04/28/03
Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.