Tiny IDs can track almost
Computer chips the size of grains of
sand have become the latest trend among manufacturers seeking to
track everything from automobiles to underwear to razor blades.
The new technology can fix the exact
location of virtually any consumer product and the humans who wear
and carry the items.
identification (RFID) chips now in mass production are affixed to
postage-stamp-size labels. Merchandisers, led by Wal-Mart, will soon
use them to track goods inside the store. Shelf antennae will alert
staff to restock products, or turn on surveillance cameras if
shoplifting is suspected.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Auto-ID Center, the
leading research organization on RFIDs, says in its literature that
the simple concept has "enormous implications.
"Put a tag — a microchip with an antenna
— on a can of Coke or a car axle, and suddenly a computer can 'see'
it. Put tags on every can of Coke and every car axle, and suddenly
the world changes. No more inventory counts. No more lost or
misdirected shipments. No more guessing how much material is in the
supply chain, or how much product is on the store shelves."
The global infrastructure that MIT
envisions is an Internet tool "that will make it possible for
computers to identify any object anywhere in the world instantly.
This network will not just provide the means to feed reliable,
accurate, real-time information into existing business applications;
it will usher in a whole new era of innovation and opportunity."
And that is what worries some privacy
advocates, who fear the Big Brother technology attached to clothing
will follow customers out of the store and be used to track people
through the items they purchase.
misused, the potential for abuse is so tremendous," said Katherine
Albrecht, director of Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion
And Numbering (CASPIAN).
consumer-watchdog group initiated a boycott against Benetton, an
Italian clothing maker and store that says it plans to implant the
technology on "smart labels" on its Sisley brand of underwear.
The company admitted in a written
statement it "is currently analyzing RFID technology to evaluate its
technical characteristics," but "emphasizes that no feasibility
studies have yet been undertaken with a view to the possible
industrial introduction of this technology."
"On completion of all studies on this
matter, including careful analysis of potential implications
relating to individual privacy, the company reserves the right to
take the most appropriate decision to generate maximum value for its
stakeholders and customers," the statement said.
Advocates of the new technology say the
identifying number on the chip can be erased, easing some privacy
concerns, and that safeguards are being developed to completely turn
the chip off before it leaves the store.
But opponents say they are not convinced
that the safeguards are enough, arguing that the chips may not be
deactivated — potentially leading to abuse of power similar to that
in totalitarian regimes.
"If Hitler had
access to this technology, there would not be a whole lot of Jewish
people alive today. This is the ultimate form of power," Mrs.
She said that the
technology also offers X-ray vision capable of reading personal
items in handbags, brief cases and pockets.
Advocates of the new technology say it
will enable manufacturerers to reduce thefts and increase profits,
and field tests have already tracked inventory shipped from all over
the country to the loading dock of a Sam's Club in Tulsa, Okla.
Also, an amusement park did real-time tracking of children wearing
bracelets with the tiny technology.
Numerous companies have the technical
ability to produce the chips at various costs, but Alien Technology
Corp. of California is at the forefront with a contract from
Gillette Co. to produce 500 million tags, at about 25 cents apiece,
to track the firm's shaving products.
"This is a landmark agreement," Stav
Prodromou, Alien chief executive, said in announcing the deal. He
said the affordable prices will ensure widespread adoption of the
Alien spokesman Tom Pound
said that within a few years, the tags will be produced for just
"We have the technology
and a roadmap that takes us there," Mr. Pound said.
Some companies are already moving past
consumer use and marketing the technology for military and
military used the technology to track food and equipment headed to
the war in Iraq, said Mark Roberti, editor of RFID Journal. "In the
first Gulf war, they sent 20,000 containers and had to open 16,000
to find out what was inside," he said.
In this year's war, chips sewn into
wristbands followed wounded military personnel and triage records as
they moved through field hospitals.
ActiveWave says its RFID system can aid
homeland security by real-time tracking of airport employees working
in secure areas by their identification cards, and passengers by
To expedite border
crossing, the Homeland Security Department is already using the
chips, embedded on identification cards.