Dont Tag RFID With Privacy Rap
The mixed signals emanating from Wal-Mart about RFID have led some to question the impact on privacy. But membership programs, not RFID tags, pose a more legitimate privacy problem.
In the most curious fit of corporate communications confusion since the iLoo, news stories this week noted both that Wal-Mart was abandoning its smart-shelf trial and that it was affirming its embrace of the technology over the next x years. It looks like Wal-Mart may need RFID tags simply to track its own schizophrenic direction. Wal-Mart claimed that the shift was part of a push to move RFID from the store floor to the warehouse floor, but other reasons could have influenced the companys decision. Cost could also still be an issue. RFID chips continue to come down on price; perhaps theyll be featured in an imminent Blue Light Special. In any case, despite the mixed messages, it appears as if the sultan of supplier squeezing has a long-term commitment to the technology. The thought of Wal-Mart adopting RFID has raised the hackles of privacy advocates who fear that adding RFID tags to products will open the door to pervasive tracking of consumer purchases. One scenario uses the unlikely scenario of RFID-enabled clothing being used to identify you when you return to the store. Doubts aside about whether the technology could withstand the abuse of daily wear and detergents, who is to say that some future version of the technology wont expire on checkout, much like todays security tags that are removed from clothing at the point of purchase?
While the threat of Wal-Mart, CVS, or any other large retailer tracking individual consumer behavior, particularly without their consent, is both scary and possible (albeit logistically difficult), RFID would play but a minor role in such a sales-tracking ploy. RFID certainly allows retailers to know more about what they sell you, but the information they care most about are things that are at best peripherally interesting to consumerssuppliers, lot numbers, SKUs, warehouse locations, shelf life and other fascinating details of inventory management.