Levi Strauss Tries on RFID for Size

Company rolls out 'hang tags' despite protests by privacy advocates

Levi strauss, one of the nations largest clothing manufacturers, confirmed April 28 its testing of RFID "hang tags" on clothing shipped to two retail outlets in Mexico and one in the United States—a move that many consumer advocates point to as an outright invasion of privacy rights, given that the tags will be attached to individual items consumers wear.

On May 1, mere days after Levis announcement, a working group of major companies—IBM is the charter member—and advocacy groups announced a set of radio-frequency identification best practices to protect consumer privacy as it relates to item-level tagging. The group, led by the Center for Democracy & Technology, or CDT, includes companies involved in RFID testing or software development: Microsoft, Intel, Cisco Systems, Procter & Gamble, Eli Lilly, American Library Association, the National Consumers League, aQuantive, VeriSign and Visa.

For its part, Levi is using RFID to track inventory at the test stores at retailers requests and has no plans to use RFID in its 18 Levis brand stores, according to Jeff Beckman, director of worldwide and U.S. communications for Levi Strauss, in San Francisco.

"Future tests … [are] being driven by retailers, and only if they are consistent with guidelines [put forth by CASPIAN], which is very transparent," Beckman said. CASPIAN, or Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering, is a consumer privacy advocate group.

The item-level tags used in the Levis stores hang from a pair of jeans much like a price tag and are identified as containing an RFID chip and as being removable, Beckman said. Signs that explain RFID are posted in test stores.

Privacy advocates fear that peoples movements will be tracked by retailers looking to extract marketing information or, worse, by the government. CASPIAN, along with about 40 privacy and civil liberties organizations, in 2003 called for a moratorium on RFID-chipped items for consumers until there is more technology-specific information available—a moratorium Levi Strauss has declined to honor.

CASPIAN also published guidelines for using RFID at the item level that call for tags to be removed before they reach consumers, according to Katherine Albrecht, founder and director of CASPIAN.

While its transparent with details on its RFID tags, Levi wont identify the U.S. retailer using RFID, although Beckman confirmed it is not Wal-Mart or Target, two major retailers with RFID mandates for their top suppliers.

Part of the reason Levi may be staying mum on the whereabouts of its RFID program is past experience from fellow clothing manufacturers.

Following a 2003 consumer boycott led by CASPIANs Al-brecht, Benetton Group backed off from plans to embed RFID chips in its Sisley line of clothing.

"If we knew where [the Levi test store] was, we would alert our membership," said Albrecht in Nashua, N.H. "Many people feel very strongly that this is a dangerous technology and there is really an issue. [At the same time,] there is an abysmally small percentage of Americans—between 10 and 20 percent—[who] have heard of RFID. Thats what we need to do—stimulate awareness before these companies start using RFID" in item-level goods.

Released at the RFID Journal Live Conference in Las Vegas from May 1-3, the CDTs best practices document is essentially a privacy guideline for companies looking to move to item-level tagging. It outlines RFID data-collection notification practices, what choice consumers should have with respect to their own personal information and how that information should be treated by companies that collect it.

The best practices group worked for more than a year to hammer out details of the document and has plans to keep that work alive—particularly after it determines the impact of the May 1 document release, according to Ann Breidenback, director of Sensor and Actuator Solutions product line management and strategy at IBM.

IBM, for its part, is working on providing technology to help privacy concerns. At the RFID Journal Live conference May 1, the company previewed its "Clipped Tag" technology that enables consumers to either tear or scratch off the RFID antenna of a tagged item, essentially eliminating the tags ability to communicate.

The first step down this road for IBM was to develop and patent the technology. It now has several partners that have developed prototypes of the technology that they can demonstrate with Gen 2 tags. Gen 2, an RFID frequency standard that was ratified by EPCglobal in 2005 and is just being productized this year, has some of its own security code written in.

RFID Best Practices

* The consumer should be informed in a clear, conspicuous and concise manner when there is an option to remove, deactivate or destroy an RFID tag and, when there is, how that option may be exercised.

* In such instances, the option to remove, deactivate or destroy an RFID tag must be readily available to the consumer and readily exercised.

* By exercising the choice to remove, deactivate or destroy an RFID tag, the consumers ability to return an item, benefit from a warranty or benefit from the protections of local law should not be compromised. Exercising this choice should not result in any damage or defect to a product.

* Responsibility for providing choice lies with the company that has a direct relationship with the consumer.