Few CIOs believe privacy concerns will derail RFID technology. They argue that RFID tags can be disabled in a variety of ways, including a device that can render the tag permanently inactive through a “kill command” once it has served its purpose. They point out that because most tags don’t have a read-range beyond three feet, they’d be pretty useless for snooping or tracking. (Of course, that range will grow. In fact, readers in tests already have picked up signals from as far as 30 feet away.)
But these arguments don’t wash with Katherine Albrecht, founder and director of Caspian (Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering). The issue, she argues, is that readers can be hidden, and personal objects?be they clothing or breath mints?can be detected on a person without their knowledge and, of course, without their permission. That, she says, is an infringement on privacy. People, Albrecht maintains, ought to have a say in whether they want their items tagged, and they should definitely be informed of the presence of readers.
About 78 percent of people polled by the Auto-ID Center at MIT agreed with Albrecht. (This Internet-based survey was confidential and released only to Auto-ID Center sponsors. CIO obtained a copy through Caspian.) “When 78 percent of people get together and lobby on this, you’re going to see legislation,” Albrecht says. “The message to retailers is tread with caution.”
At least one company is doing just that. U.K.-based retailer Marks & Spencer reached out to Caspian for help in finding ways to prevent RFID abuses. While Caspian does not support the item-level trial Marks & Spencer is planning, Albrecht says the company is “doing a bang-up job addressing privacy concerns.” It’s not, for example, putting RFID readers in any public spaces, such as parking lots, and it’s not hiding them. It’s using portable readers that can be rolled into a back room once the store closes. Marks & Spencer is also not building readers into shelves, so there’s no in-store surveillance.
If retailers fail to consider these concerns, they may end up wasting money on pilots and deployments if legislation passes preventing item-level tagging. However, if retailers take these issues seriously, they’ll reduce the risk of the government banning item-level RFID, and they’ll be prepared to leverage the technology when the time is right.