By Mark Ward
Technology Correspondent, BBC News website, in Hanover
You might never lose another sock once radio frequency ID (RFID) tags are used everywhere, Google's chief internet evangelist has said.
Smart scales can identify different produce using RFID technology
Vint Cerf was speaking at the Cebit technology fair in Hanover after the announcement of a Europe-wide consultation study on RFID.
The study was announced at a press conference by the European Commission.
RFID is a technology that puts a small amount of computer memory into a tag readable at a distance by radio.
It promises to revolutionise the way we track items - and even people, which worries civil liberties groups.
The aim of the consultation exercise is to gauge reactions to RFID by both businesses and citizens in Europe.
Viviane Reding, the EU commissioner behind the exercise, warned that wider use of RFID would not be allowed to undermine the fundamental liberties that European citizens enjoy.
Ms Reding, EU Commissioner for Information Society and Media, also took time to point up the benefits of RFID.
She said European aircraft manufacturer Airbus was already using RFID tags on the replaceable parts - such as brakes, seats and lifebelts - of the planes it builds. Many other firms are also trying out RFID tags to help them streamline their supply chains.
Ms Reding said the widespread use of radio tags would tie together the internet world of cyberspace with the real world.
"We are heading toward a world in which billions of networked objects and sensors will report their location, identity and history," she said.
It fell to net veteran Mr Cerf to give a futuristic, and slightly frivolous, example of how RFID tags might be employed in coming years.
He was speaking during a debate on the promise and pitfalls of the smart labelling technology.
Mr Cerf envisioned a day when RFID tags were so ubiquitous that everything, including our socks, would be studded with them.
By interrogating our sock drawer with an RFID reader we could find out if any single sock of a pair was missing. A check around the house with the reader would reveal the sock no matter if it was beneath the sofa or trapped in the washing machine.
"RFID could solve the mystery of missing socks and that's a very important contribution to society," said Mr Cerf.
As a more serious example, Mr Cerf said RFID tags could be used in hospitals to label medicines to ensure that drugs were used before they expired and, in conjunction with tags worn by patients, could make sure the right treatment was administered.
The potential use of RFID tags for medicines and healthcare led other speakers in the debate to highlight the potential problems such a technology poses for personal privacy.
Malcolm Crompton, former federal privacy commissioner for Australia and now a consultant on RFID issues, said it was important that safeguards for personal data were built into any laws governing the use of the tags.
But, he added, there was no reason why people would think the greater use of RFID tags should mean an erosion of personal privacy.
Any standards drawn up over the proper use of RFID should detail the control that people have over the use of data generated by the use of smart tags, he said.
For instance, said Mr Crompton, standards could mandate the use of RFID in the form of a tag that a person could snap in half so that it could no longer pass on information.
This could be used to ensure that once an item with an attached tag leaves a shop, it no longer transmits data.
Zygmunt Mierdorf, board member of German retailer Metro AG, said it was also important for businesses to ensure they treated the data generated by RFID tags properly.
"Privacy and security we have to guarantee 100%," he said. "What happens when we fail? The consumer sanction is immediate and silent. They just walk away from us."
A report based on responses to the EC consultation on RFID tags should be ready by the end of 2006, said Commissioner Reding.
"We will not accept that the fundamental liberties of our citizens will be compromised," she added.