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Last Updated: Friday, 21 November, 2003, 08:30 GMT
Radio tags spark privacy worries
Women shoppers
Tags could be used to track shoppers' behaviour
The use of radio tags on consumer products should be put on hold, say a number of consumer, privacy and civil liberties groups.

The campaigners said the tags could be used to undermine privacy.

They have called for a debate on the implications of the technology.

"We are not saying that this technology should not hit the mainstream, but we need to consider privacy issues," said Ian Brown, director of a UK think tank that backed the call.

Potential money-saver

Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags are tiny transponders that send out radio signals. Each chip is unique, so any one item, can be tracked individually.

Some experts predict the technology will become commonplace over the next decade or so, as more and more companies use it to keep tabs on their products.

You could have a shop that notices that you are wearing Versace clothes and vary the level of services and prices accordingly
Ian Brown, Foundation for Information Policy Research
Stolen goods can be tracked, stock can be monitored quickly and a sensor could be placed on shelves which would then register when goods are moved.

But civil liberties groups are concerned that much of the talk about the technology has focused on the benefits to business, rather than the implications for consumers.

"When you look at these tags, you see an interesting technology that has the potential to save money for companies," said Mr Brown, Director of the Foundation for Information Policy Research think tank.

"But not enough energy has gone into looking at the privacy problems of having tags that can be read at a distance of 10 metres for the lifetime of the product," he told BBC News Online.

Resistance and suspicion

In a statement, the groups warned of the potential threat to privacy and civil liberties.

Campaigners want the tags deactivated at the checkout
They said the tags could be used to draw up a profile an individual without their knowledge or consent or that tag could be secretly embedded into objects such as shopping bags.

"You could have a shop that notices that you are wearing Versace clothes and vary the level of services and prices accordingly," said Mr Brown.

The statement by more than 30 European and US groups urges manufacturers and retailers to agree on a voluntary moratorium on the tagging consumer items until "a formal technology assessment process involving all stakeholders, including consumers, can take place".

It added: "Some uses of RFID technology are inappropriate in a free society, and should be flatly prohibited. Society should not wait for a crisis involving RFID before exerting oversight."

Signatories to the petition include the American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Privacy Information Centre, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Privacy International.

So far RFID trials have met resistance and suspicion. In the US, retail giant Wal-Mart has abandoned plans to put tags on razor blades because of consumer protests.

And a tagging system at Prada in New York has ruffled the feathers of its shoppers, who did not want the size of the clothes they were trying on being beamed into the air.

Tagging your shopping
24 Sep 03  |  Business
'Smart tags' store trial underway
16 Sep 03  |  Berkshire

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