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Radio Frequency Identification Devices Tags

Businesses are racing to implement a new technology, Radio Frequency Identification Devices, commonly called RFIDs. Think of them as a tiny computer chip with a radio antenna whose signals can be picked up by scanning equipment. The tiny RFID chip stores data it can transmit to the receiver or scanning equipment. While transmitting power and ranges vary, they generally work by sending out their own signal in response to a signal from a receiver located nearby.

The possible uses of this technology are endless: businesses wanting to track supplies and inventories; libraries wanting to track books; governments wanting to put them into passports and drivers licenses; and at least one school is using them to track students.

Companies love them because they can put these little tags into their products and track them from a distance. Giant pallets of inventory can be counted in a snap. While this is great for supply and inventory purposes, it makes some people nervous about what happens when these tags are added to clothing and other products that leave the store with you. People are concerned with being tracked as they walk down the street or someone watching who they associate with by linking clusters of RFIDs.

The ultimate privacy concern seems to be the possibility of the implantation of RFID chips under the skin. While this might help us find missing children, there is no doubt there is something creepy about the implanting of computer chips.

Not surprisingly, the ACLU, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), and other privacy and technology groups are opposed to some potential RFID uses without a clearly defined set of technical specifications and usage policies. These groups are concerned about the impact RFIDs could have on consumer privacy, the anonymity of the individual with retailers, and even the threat to our civil liberties. The ACLU is especially opposed to the use of RFID tags by public libraries and views such use as a serious risk to personal privacy.

Privacy activists are quick to point out worst case scenarios for the misuse of RFIDs, including government tracking of citizens, and identity thieves gathering your personal information remotely. How soon until we see people driving around with stolen or knockoff RFID readers scanning for RFID data in a manner similar to people looking for free Wi-Fi Internet access today?

While I'm not ready to break out my tin foil hat, I do respect the privacy activists who are in an uproar over the implementation of RFID tags. They see the worst case scenario at play-the tracking of people and their every day activities through their clothing and belongings by "Big Brother." While the tracking aspect of RFIDs does bring to mind the worst of the "Big Brother" possibilities, I hardly think companies like Wal-Mart want to know what I do with my underwear after I leave the store.

The simple fix would be to turn the RFID tags off when we leave the store with our purchase. Stores already wave products over a magnet to turn off their security devices. But how can we be sure the RFID is turned off?

Moreover, we are not just talking about problems once we leave the store. Retailers are already using them inside the store in test cases to track consumers and customer patterns. Companies have been caught taking pictures of customers as they take a product containing an RFID off the shelf, video taping customers as they interact with products, and tracking movement patterns of customers inside a store.

Companies who use RFIDs need to handle the data they collect in a manner similar to the way they handle personal information collected from customers during online transactions - very carefully. Some people are sensitive when it comes to their personal privacy.

I suggest that you don't hide your use of RFIDs. Instead, explicitly state your planned use of the tags and readers. Tell people what you are going to do with your RFIDs by placing public notices and using your privacy statements. Label the products that contain an RFID with an easy-to-understand message to consumers stating what RFIDs are, what they do, and what you do with the data you collect. Finally, don't build a "secret database" with tracking numbers and other data you collect with RFID readers and scanners. You could be looking at a public relations nightmare should your customers find out about its existence. "Secret database" sounds bad, and looks worse in print.

Most of the howls of outrage associated with RFIDs so far have happened when companies and schools started using them without telling anyone or through bungled test programs. One California school issued names tags with RFIDs imbedded in them as part of a test program without telling parents or children. When people found out and wanted their children removed from the test program, the school threatened disciplinary action. The parents went to the ACLU and other civil liberties groups, and the story eventually found its way into the press.

Wal-Mart is currently working on a massive RFID implementation plan by starting to require its suppliers to put RFID tags into shipping crates and pallets if they want to do business with the retail giant. Wal-Mart has always been a leader in implementing new technologies, so it should come as no surprise they are pushing a new technology that will help them keep track of billions of dollars of inventory in its stores worldwide.

I would advise companies interested in implementing RFID tags to wait. Let Wal-Mart work out many of the kinks of this new technology. You have a fantastic opportunity to sit back and see what Wal-Mart works out, and they will help drive down the costs you face once you are ready to implement an RFID plan. True, Wal-Mart will get to play a large part in setting a number of technical standards, but think of it as their return on investment for their work in pioneering the mass market RFID technology.

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