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Last Updated: Saturday, 8 April 2006, 07:25 GMT 08:25 UK
Alarm over shopping radio tags
David Reid
By David Reid
Click reporter

RFID tag
RFID technology broadcasts information to electronic readers
Supermarkets have already brought everything under the sun under one roof, and along the way been accused of denuding the High Street of butcher, baker and candlestick-maker.

Now they are introducing a new technology that some say threatens a fundamental invasion of our privacy.

We are all familiar with barcodes, those product fingerprints that save cashiers the bother of keying in the code number of everything we buy.

Now, meet their replacement: the RFID tag, or radio frequency ID tag.

These smart labels consist of a tiny chip surrounded by a coiled antenna.

Good tracking

While barcodes need to be manually scanned, RFID simply broadcasts its presence and data to electronic readers.

It means the computer networks of companies can track the position and progress of billions of products on rail, road, sea and shelf.

Vint Cerf
You start to ask yourself: 'who has the ability to read the chips and what do they do with the information?'
Vint Cerf, internet pioneer
Albrecht Von Truchsess, from the German supermarket chain Metro Group, which uses this technology, says: "RFID really brings a revolution to everything that is transported from one point to the other, and in the future you will have it really on everything.

"That means that we don't have to do anything while the goods are on the way from the production site to our stores. It is just done automatically."

For all the benefits the technology promises, the roll-out of RFID is in danger of being derailed by the public's perception of it.

A Christian author in the US, for example, has just published a book claiming RFID will evolve into the mark of the beast featured in Revelation and presage the end of the world.

'Big Brother'?

The technology has also attracted criticism from more moderate voices.

Among these is Vint Cerf. He is one of the inventors of the internet and is now employed by Google as the company's internet evangelist.

He told Click: "What everybody worries about is that these identifiers will be used not to keep track of the object, but of the person associated with the object and then there's a Big Brother scenario that everybody worries about.

"But when the economics get to the point where the readers are inexpensive and the chips are inexpensive, then you start to ask yourself who has the ability to read the chips and what do they do with the information?"

Metro sees RFID working for it by having food traceable back to the farm, queues cut to nothing, and shelves that shout when they are empty.

Discarded drinks can
Slippery slope: could your discarded items come back to haunt you?
But with remotely readable tags on everything from boots to beans, is it the customers or what they buy that is being labelled?

Former Australian privacy commissioner Malcolm Crompton says: "If done wrongly, it really is possible that I can buy things in one shop and be tracked in another shop, that the data, once collected, stays there for someone to come in and collect and use under circumstances that I don't know about or that I don't approve of.

"I think that is when society is on a slippery slope."

The fear is that what we buy will be forever linked to us. In the nightmare scenario, an innocently discarded soft drink can could end up in what later becomes a crime scene.

RFID could open a whole new field of forensics where the tag on the can removes any reasonable doubt.

Taking steps

Concerns about RFID have been taken up by Viviane Reding, the European commissioner for information society and media.

She has recently launched a public consultation process with a view to seeing whether RFID needs to be regulated.

She says: "A new technology that is bound to be multiplied by 10 to 15 times in the next coming years in numbers of sales will not fly, and will not be of benefit to the community and to the economy if the consumers are afraid that this technology might be a threat to their privacy."

One solution being floated is the idea of killing the code on the chip as customers leave the shop.

Whatever comes out of the European Commission's consultation, it looks likely that your Saturday shop will never be the same again.

Radio tag study revealed at Cebit
10 Mar 06 |  Technology
Consumer concern over RFID tags
09 Feb 05 |  Technology

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