Montreal, August 16, 2003  /  No 127  
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Ralph Maddocks is a retired textile executive and former management consultant. He lives in Cowansville, Quebec.
by Ralph Maddocks
          One of life's small but necessary pleasures, at least for many of the ladies in our lives, is shopping and most of us like to shop where there is a wide choice of things to purchase, articles with the lowest prices consistent with our quality requirements. Among the emporia which come closest to meeting many if not most of these criteria are outlets like Costco and Wal-Mart.
The day Wal-Mart happened 
          Companies such as these two, and many others, claim that they are able to do the things they do by having efficient operations using the latest technologies. Any manager worth his salt dreams of improving efficiency, lowering shrinkage, having accurate inventory information available on demand and so on. Among the tools employed to achieve such results hitherto has been the ubiquitous UPC barcode, that universally employed strip of varying widths of black bars which accompanies almost every product we purchase. We should remember though that although the original patent for barcodes was issued in 1952 it took twenty years before a standard for barcodes was approved. Even then, some ten years later in 1982, they still hadn't caught on and only 15,000 suppliers were using them. However that all changed in 1984, and by 1987 – just three years later – 75,000 suppliers were using barcodes. What happened to cause this change? Wal-Mart happened, and when it said that it wanted to use barcodes as a better way to manage inventory, then barcodes suddenly became obligatory. If you wanted to continue to be a supplier to Wal-Mart then you used barcodes, it was as simple as that. 
          Barcodes though have one defect, they are relatively large, and quite useless for very small articles such as an expensive watch battery – such batteries arrive with a relatively large blister package which bears the barcode – and the code identifies only the product itself. This defect is about to be remedied with the advent of Auto ID which is intended to replace the UPC barcode and which employs a numbering scheme called ePC (electronic product code) which provides a unique ID for any physical object imaginable. Very shortly, perhaps within a couple of years, not only will each product category be identified but each item produced within that category will be identified. In other words, it could become possible to know that my watch battery was the seven hundred thousand and twenty fourth battery produced on the No.8 production line at the XYZ Battery Co's plant in Timbuktu at 2:00a.m. on August 1st, 2005. This miracle, which is already bringing joy to the hearts of retail executives everywhere, will be accomplished by the use of a Radio Frequency ID (RFID) tag costing, some say less than 1 cent by next year and measuring "somewhere between the size of a grain of sand and a speck of dust." These RFIDs which will be built into every product manufacturing process – indeed into virtually everything we buy and use whether it be food, clothing, drugs, or automobile-parts – send out a radio signal which can be picked up by Internet-linked computers.  
          These RFIDs were first invented in 1969 and patented in 1973, but are only now becoming commercially viable. Some versions of these RFIDs are already in use, they are implanted into people's pet animals and are used in the EZPass system at US toll booths. The chip acts as a transponder (transmitter/responder) and is always listening for a radio signal sent by transceivers, or RFID readers. When such a transponder receives a radio query, it responds by transmitting its unique ID code, perhaps a 128-bit number, back to the transceiver. Before you ask, they are obviously too small at 1/3 of a millimetre to carry their own power supply, instead they are powered by the radio signal that wakes them up and requests an answer. Most of these answers are designed to be read at a distance of between a few inches to several feet away, depending on the size of the antenna and the power driving the RFID tags. Some RFIDs are in fact powered by batteries, but owing to their increased size and cost, they are not as common as the passive, non-battery-powered models and tend to be used on larger and more valuable items. Presumably more sensitive RFID receivers will be built so that transmission distances can be increased and an RFID's movements then monitored from afar.  
          Our friends at Wal-Mart have announced that they fully intend that their top 100 suppliers will support RFID completely for inventory tracking by 2005. The ease of inventory taking alone means that a Wal-Mart "associate" will be able to point an RFID reader at any of the 1 billion sealed boxes of items which Wal-Mart receives every year and know instantly just exactly how many items it has in stock. There will be no unpacking of boxes to count items, no unnecessary handling at all and barcode scanners will be required no longer.  
Sending signals all over 
          Opining about the advantages of RFID tags, one Supermarket executive was quoted as saying, "Radio frequency is a technology that supermarkets are already using in a number of places throughout the store. We now envision a day where consumers will walk into a store, select products whose packages are embedded with small radio frequency UPC codes, and exit the store without ever going through a checkout line or signing their name on a dotted line." 
          The price tags are going to be a lot smarter than that though: they will send out signals that are picked up all over the store, leaving a snapshot as individual items are detected – for example in the changing rooms of clothing stores triggering video images of whatever it is you're trying on. Some stores will remove them at the cash-desk, but many will not and many have discussed embedding them inside the clothes themselves. Reader devices which are easily hidden have been fabricated into floor tiles, carpeting, doorways. As you enter a doorway, you will be emitting an electronic cloud. Everything from your spectacles or earrings to the contents of your pockets or briefcase could be sending out information that would be picked up by the doorway.  
          The market researchers too are salivating over this development, seeing an end to the barcodes and frequent shopper cards. While these did a better job of linking consumers and their purchases, loyalty cards were severely limited and something more integrated was needed to provide marketers with a wider understanding of consumer purchase behaviour, attitudes and product usage. They see that answer in RFID technology which enables the linking of product information with a specific consumer identified by key demographic markers. Where once they were able only to collect purchase information, now they will be able to correlate consumer product purchase with consumption specifics such as how, when and who used the product. This technology expands the marketers' ability to monitor an individual's behaviour in ways undreamt of before now. With corporate sponsors like Wal-Mart, the Food Marketing Institute, Home Depot, the British supermarket chain Tesco as well as some of the world's largest consumer goods manufacturers, it will not be very long before RFID based surveillance tags begin appearing in every store-bought item in your home. Some rejoice that a time is coming when the system will be used to identify and track every item produced on the planet. 
          Since the founding of the Auto-ID Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1999, the concept has moved forward at incredible speed. The centre is funded by some of the largest consumer goods manufacturers in the world and the US Department of Defense. In the middle of the year 2001, the Auto-ID centre wired the entire city of Tulsa, Oklahoma with radio-frequency equipment to establish if it could track Auto-ID equipped packages. A test which included the participation of such firms as Gillette, Philip Morris, Procter & Gamble, and Wal-Mart. 
     « With corporate sponsors like Wal-Mart, the Food Marketing Institute, Home Depot, the British supermarket chain Tesco as well as some of the world's largest consumer goods manufacturers, it will not be very long before RFID based surveillance tags begin appearing in every store-bought item in your home. »
          This Auto-ID is a system which has profoundly worrisome implications for the privacy of consumers. It does not require very much imagination to realise that this technology's proponents have begun to envision an omnipresent network of millions of receivers along the entire supply chain. They would be located at airports, seaports, on highways, warehouses, distribution centres, retail stores, and – you guessed it – in your home. The signals transmitted by these RFID devices will be picked up as they pass the various locations thus enabling a company to track manufactured or purchased items continuously as they move from place to place. Not forgetting in which home the item finally comes to rest. The ultimate objective to be achieved is obviously a world in which every item is numbered, identified, catalogued, and tracked. Including you the reader! That shirt you are wearing will contain an RFID so that the operators of these systems will know where you are at any time. The major problem associated with these tags is political, and the creation of a global system will require much negotiation between nations. 
Tracking devices 
          Others are looking at their potential use in financial areas and the European Central Bank is quietly working away to embed RFID tags in the fibres of Euro bank notes by 2005. The EU claims that it will assist in eliminating money laundering, and presumably tax evasion, and the tag would allow a given banknote to transmit its own history by recording information and it also makes it possible for governments to track the movement of cash from individual to individual. Thus governments and law enforcement agencies would be able to "follow the money," as it were, in every transaction in which a particular banknote was involved. In so doing it will effectively eliminate the anonymity that cash transactions have afforded the honest citizenry until now. Cash is the last truly anonymous way to buy and sell. With RFID tags, that anonymity will be gone. In addition, banks would not be the only ones who could, in an instant, divine how much cash you were carrying; the criminal fraternity will not be far behind in acquiring these transceivers. Perhaps this the last step towards the much touted cashless society. 
          Doubtless, as far as North America and the EU are concerned, this technology will be adopted eagerly by our governments, presumably using our RFID marked tax money. The selling point being eagerly embraced by the Wal-Marts and their ilk is that these smart tags not only improve inventory and supply chain efficiency but they will report when the item is stolen and act as a homing device for the police. While in theory, the reduction of "shrinkage" should produce a welcome reduction in prices, it must be observed that it increases also the opportunities for the continued oppressive surveillance of the consumer by manufacturers, retailers and marketers. Of course, government and law enforcement will be quick to use this technology to keep tabs on citizens, as well. After all, having touted all the advantages of RFIDs such as catching the criminals with their ill gotten gains we will all be so happy that their potential for use against us will be forgotten. The police will be able to scan our car trunks and cars without asking our permission and you may discover perhaps that the TV set that you bought at a flea market was actually stolen. 
          Other uses too, especially those related to security, seem like a great idea. Delta Airlines is testing RFID on some flights, tagging 40,000 flyers' bags in order to reduce baggage loss and making it easier to re-route bags should a customer change their flight plan. Three seaport operators – accounting for 70% of the world's port operations – have agreed to use tags to track the17,000 containers that arrive each day at US ports in addition to tracking the employees handling them. At the moment, less than 2% of arriving containers are inspected. As might be expected, the United States Department of Defense is using RFID tags to trace military supply shipments tracking those shipments throughout 40 countries.  
          In the Star City Casino in Sydney, Australia, RFID tags were placed in 80,000 employee uniforms in order to stop theft. The same idea could be applied to corporate PCs, networking equipment, PDAs and other tempting apparatus. Like most similar ideas the use of RFID tags seems very reasonable, they aren't intrusive – at 1/3 of a millimetre they are hardly obvious – and would seem to balance security and privacy. The credit card companies are examining the technology with interest and Visa is reported to be combining smart cards and RFID chips so that people can conduct transactions without having to use cash or coins. These smart cards incorporated into cell phones or other devices, would mean that you could pay for parking, buy a newspaper, and grab a cup of coffee from a vending machine without even opening your wallet. 
          Michelin, which manufactures 800,000 tyres a day, is intending to incorporate RFID tags into their tyres. A tag which will store a unique number for each tyre, a number that will be associated with the car's VIN (Vehicle Identification Number). Sounds like a good idea for Michelin, the car manufacturer and for fighting crime; but your tyres will be also broadcasting your every move. Do you really want that? 
Future in tags 
          As things stand at the moment, you can buy a television set, a pair of jeans, a shirt or even a razor blade in complete anonymity. With RFID tags, that will become a thing of the past. While some manufacturers seem to be planning to tag just the packaging, others will undoubtedly tag each item. At the moment, there is no law requiring a label indicating that a product contains an RFID tag. Once you buy your RFID-tagged garment at clothing store with RFID-tagged banknotes, walk out of the store wearing RFID-tagged shoes, and get into your car with its RFID-tagged tyres, you could be followed anywhere you go. Barcodes are usually scanned at the store, but not after purchase. However, RFID transponders will be, in many cases, forever part of the product, and designed to respond when they receive a signal. Ponder the thought that everything you own or wear is numbered, identified, catalogued and tracked by someone. All thought of anonymity and privacy will disappear. You will have been betrayed by the very property you own.  
          There is talk also about placing RFID tags into all sensitive or important documents. If it is practical to put them in paper money, then they can be put in drivers' licences, passports, stock certificates, manuscripts, university diplomas, birth certificates or any other sort of document. In other words, those documents you're required to have, that you can't live without, will be forever tagged. The Hon. Denis Coderre and his beloved ID cards will not be an issue any more, your clothes or your wallet will identify you, unless all your belongings are second hand.  
          The US company, Applied Digital Solutions, has designed an RFID tag for people, it is called the VeriChip and is only 11 mm long, designed to go under the skin, where it can be read from about four feet away. Of course they market them as a way to keep track of young children or people with Alzheimer's who are in danger of wandering off and getting lost. The possibilities though are truly intimidating, those children will grow up one day and soon everyone will be tagged. Last May, the representatives at the Chinese Communist Party Congress were required to wear an RFID-equipped badge at all times so that their movements could be tracked and recorded. Can there be any doubt that, in future, those badges will be replaced by VeriChip-like devices?  
          There doesn't seem to be a lot that we can do about all this either. Theoretically, if one could find them, one could smash them with a hammer. They cannot be demagnetised, and washing your clothes won't get rid of them either because they're designed specifically to withstand years of wearing, washing, and drying. You could perhaps microwave some objects but my microwave certainly does not have the capacity to hold my car's tyres, let alone my whole car. As one commentator noted, "The law of unintended consequences is about to encounter surveillance devices smaller than the period at the end of this sentence." 
Previous articles by Ralph Maddocks
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