RFID proponents insist that the tracking tags will be used to improve supply chains and not to track individual sales items or the people buying them. But if you purchase a printer or scanner from Wal-Mart Stores Inc., a tracking tag might go home with you.
That possibility is raising red flags among privacy rights advocates and sparking debate in Congress, which last week heard calls for legislative action to protect privacy.
"It is possible to have RFID [radio-frequency identification] tags in everything from individual pieces of clothing, as Benetton [Group S.p.A.] proposed, to tanks, as the Defense Department is already doing," said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., during a hearing before the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection.
"Soon we could have Big Brother and big business tuning to the same frequency, where not only will they know where you are, but theyll know what youre wearing."
In general, RFID users in retail and manufacturing oppose legislation that would restrict the technology or its applications.
Wal-Mart is forging ahead with its RFID initiative, expanding a project that began last summer when it gave its top 100 suppliers until January 2005 to install tags on items headed to three Texas distribution centers. By January 2006, the retailer wants its next 200 suppliers to join the initiative, according to Linda Dillman, executive vice president and CIO at Wal-Mart, in Bentonville, Ark.
The store is interested in tracking shipping cases, but cases for large products—printers and scanners, for example—often serve as the packaging, Dillman said.
The problem, according to Barry Steinhardt, director of the Technology and Liberty Project at the American Civil Liberties Union in New York, is that it represents a larger trend toward a "surveillance society." Cautioning that a network of automated RFID "listening posts" could reveal the location of everyone in the United States, Steinhardt is urging lawmakers to require privacy protections.
RFID vendors are concerned about privacy as well, but they are pressing for industry-led answers, said Erik Michielsen, director of RFID and ubiquitous networks at ABI Research Inc., in Oyster Bay, N.Y.