Can your razor blade spy on you?
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Some tags do have batteries, but they're much more expensive and, although they might be able to communicate 15 feet or more in ideal conditions, they're much less reliable. Batteries are also expensive, and when they die, the card stops working.Skip to next paragraph
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For their part, store executives say they're much more likely to confine themselves to passive tags for tracking inventory. Wal-Mart, for example, has asked its 100 top suppliers to make deliveries with RFID tags on pallets and cases starting in 2005, says Tom Williams, a spokesman for the retail giant based in Bentonville, Ark. The chain will set the same standard for all 20,000 of its suppliers in 2006, in order to save money and increase sales through more efficient inventory practices.
But some companies are experimenting with more sophisticated applications. This year at the Tokyo International Book Fair, Sun Microsystems and the Japanese communications company NTT demonstrated a system that can track which books a shopper looks at and for how long. It also can monitor how many times a particular book is removed from its shelf.
In Britain, the Tesco discount chain and Gillette have tested an antishoplifting system that has store security cameras photograph people who take an abnormal number of blades off the shelf.
"Typically, purchasing patterns don't have you purchasing five- or 10-blade packages," says Gillette spokesman Eric Kraus. Gillette's "Mach3" blades are among the most frequently pilfered items at the store, he adds.
The privacy-rights group Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering has denounced the test on its website and called for a boycott.
"We support free and open discussion of all (privacy) aspects but in the end consumers, and not advocacy groups, will decide on what technology innovations consumers support," Mr. Kraus counters. "We're working with other companies involved to develop guidelines."
Earlier this year, Gillette announced it had placed an order for up to 500 million RFID tags to be used in its supply chain, from manufacturing to inventory to sales.
But don't expect widespread use of the tags right away, says Dan Mullen, CEO of Automated Information Manufacturers, or AIM, Inc., an international trade group for the RFID industry based in Pittsburgh, Pa.
Companies have discussed putting RFID tags on garments so that a similarly-equipped washing machine would know how to clean them. But researchers haven't figured out a way for the clothing to send clear signals from the metal-lined interior of a machine, where radio signals bounce around. It may take years for researchers to work out basic standards. "At the end of the whole discussion, companies are only going to adopt things that make them more competitive and provide better customer service," Mullen says.
One key issue is the location of the tag, says Ms. Givens of the privacy clearinghouse. She argues all RFID tags should be readily identifiable and easy to remove, destroy, or turn off. Several policymakers, from California Senator Bowen to Mr. Sharma of the Auto-ID Center, agree.
Still, as new as the technology is, consumers object to what they perceive as surreptitious surveillance, says Paul Lee, a research analyst with Deloitte Consulting in London. If manufacturers can find ways to make RFID useful to their customers, he thinks they'll find a market within the next 20 years. Mr. Sharma thinks it will take longer, if it ever happens.
At this early stage in RFID, Harvard's Professor Kang says, it's crucial that the tags give an audible or tactile alarm every time they're signaled by a reader.
"If you got one of those notifications, it would be interesting to you. It could start a policy and political conversation.... It might even get us mad. But 10 years from now it could be like [online] cookies. People might say, 'Just live through it.' "