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Last Updated: Tuesday, 16 September, 2003, 07:57 GMT 08:57 UK
'Smart tags' store trial underway
by Malcolm Prior
BBC News Online, Sandhurst

A Tesco's store
The tags are being tested at two Tesco stores
To some, it is the first step towards an Orwellian nightmare of personality-profiling and Big Brother-style monitoring.

To others, it is simply the most efficient way of doing business.

The latest trials of controversial electronic radio tags that allow store bosses to keep track of individual goods are currently taking place.

Tesco chiefs are piloting the chips, which contain a code similar to a product's barcode but unique to that actual item, at branches in Sandhurst, Berkshire, and Leicester.

There was controversy earlier in 2003 when the tracking system was used in the packaging of Gillette Mach3 razor blades to stop shoplifting at one of the store chain's Cambridge branches.

I'm not talking about an Orwellian nightmare that may or may not occur. This is on its way
Campaigner Chris McDermott
Human rights campaigners criticised the Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) scheme, saying that anyone with the right kind of scanning device could find out exactly what items shoppers have bought and could ultimately identify a person simply by the goods they are carrying or wearing.

Its designers - based at the Auto-ID Centre, set up by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology - say their goal is to produce an internet database of every product in the world.

The chips are now being attached to the packaging of almost every DVD disc in the Sandhurst and Leicester stores.

But bosses are adamant that they are being used only to tell staff which titles are in stock, how many there are of them and where they can be found.

Security uses

They have vowed that the two latest trials, which will last until the end of 2003, are not being held to improve security at the stores nor to build up profiles of their customers' shopping habits.

Tesco spokesman Greg Sage told BBC News Online: "There has been some talk in America about privacy but we would never compromise the privacy of our customers.

"We are very responsible about these things.

"We would never introduce anything without clear benefits to the customer.

"There are potential security benefits with RFID but it's not something we are looking at Sandhurst or Leicester."

Universal database

But Mr Sage confirmed that the tags would not be switched off at the point of sale but would remain with shoppers until they disposed of the product's packaging.

Campaigner Chris McDermott, of recently-formed pressure group, notags.co.uk, says he would be happier if the chips were not there in the first place.

He is campaigning against the introduction of RFID, saying that if the goal of a universal database is achieved it could signal the end of our privacy.

Mr McDermott said: "If you pay with a credit or debit card, or use a loyalty card, you are intrinsically linked to that product.

"It would not take a lot to build up a picture of what you do, where you go, where you shop and what you buy when you are there.

"I'm not talking about an Orwellian nightmare that may or may not occur.

This is on it's way. RFID is going to happen.

"It's a question of how much people will know about it and how much we are prepared to give our privacy away."

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14 Sep 03  |  Coventry_Warwickshire
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16 Jan 03  |  Technology

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