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RFID Clothing Tags Would Not Be Private Labels

RFID Clothing Tags Would Not Be Private Labels

Imagine a time in the near future when you enter a mall for a day of shopping. As you enter that mall, a tiny RFID scanner near the entrance captures the pulse from the hidden RFID tag sewn into the jacket that you are wearing. The information captured by that scanner is sent to a transactional database and within seconds your complete identity, and the location and date that you purchased that jacket, is captured. As a result, the “mall” knows that you have just arrived and, through the use of other RFID scanners (located throughout the mall), begins to track your every movement.

Your first stop in the mall that day is to buy a new coffee maker. You decide that Wal-Mart is the retail establishment to shop at first. Through the RFID scanner and that hidden tag sewn into the label in your jacket, the information concerning your visit and your length of time in Wal-Mart will be captured by the readers located in the mall.

However, RFID technology is also used at Wal-Mart and the tracking of your every move will continue even after you leave the mall through Wal-Mart’s in-store scanners. Upon entering the store, Wal-Mart knows you are there. A screen brings up your identity, transaction history, and profile. Soon, a store employee whom you have never met or seen before approaches you and welcomes you. He addresses you by your first name as though he has known you as a friend for years. He asks if he can help you today.

This store “greeter” has already seen through the (RFID) transactional database that you bought a Norah Jones CD the last time you were at Wal-Mart. He mentions that the store has just received her newest CD. He also knows, through a database analysis of millions of people with a buying history similar to yours, that a large percentage of people that listen to Norah Jones also enjoy music from Diana Krall and drink white wine. He suggests both items to you as good buys in the store today. He also offers to sign you up for the store credit card since he knows that you usually purchase items using cash.

As you move through Wal-Mart, every aisle that you visit continues to be monitored due to the communication between the in-store scanners and that hidden tag sewn into your jacket. Finally, you decide that you want to buy the Braun coffee maker that is on sale and that newly released Norah Jones CD. Since you have never had a drink of white table wine, you buy a bottle to try something new.

The store rings up the sale by scanning the RFID tags on the coffeemaker, wine, and CD. All of the data concerning these new purchases immediately becomes stored with all your prior purchases in the RFID transactional database. The database knows everything about these new purchases; the fact that you bought a Braun coffeemaker at Wal-Mart, how much you were willing to pay, and that you like to purchase products when they are on sale. It also captures the purchase of the new CD of Norah Jones as well as the bottle of white table wine. It knows that you paid for everything in cash.

After these purchases, you leave the store and the RFID readers in the mall resume tracking and recording your every retail browsing movement. In fact, the tracking of your retail experiences and purchases continues to go on in the same manner, day after day, week after week, store after store. Soon, the RFID transaction database can tell anyone who would like to know about all your buying preferences and shopping habits.

Your retail profile from that transaction database will capture what you like to eat, what brands of clothes,cologne, perfume, and shoes you prefer. It will know about the magazines and books you read, the stores you visit, and the length of your shopping time in each. It will also show how many items you bought that were on sale. In fact, an analysis of your buying habits compared with millions of other similar people in the database, could even be able to predict other things that you may like to buy.

Then, that retail information profile on you in the database can be used as a solicitation source. It could be used for target advertisements to your cell phone, landline telephone, email address, mailing address, or even after entering a store, through the personal solicitation from a store employee.

Of course many readers may by now be thinking that this is all too far fetched. Maybe someday in the distant future, but certainly not today. I will tell you that this future may be a lot closer than you think. This fact becomes clear when you look at the RFID patent requests of several large U.S. corporations that include IBM, NCR, American Express, and Proctor and Gamble. Based on their patent requests, it is clear that a future based on RFID tags may indeed become our reality very soon.

Consider the abstract of the RFID pending patent request ( 20020165758 ) from International Business Machines called, “Identification and tracking of persons using RFID-tagged items” as an example. The IBM abstract description reads: “A method and system for identifying and tracking persons using RFID-tagged items carried on the persons. Previous purchase records for each person who shops at a retail store are collected by POS terminals and stored in a transaction database. When a person carrying or wearing items having RFID tags enters the store or other designated area, a RFID tag scanner located therein scans the RFID tags on that person and reads the RFID tag information. The RFID tag information collected from the person is correlated with transaction records stored in the transaction database according to known correlation algorithms. Based on the results of the correlation, the exact identity of the person or certain characteristics about the person can be determined. This information is used to monitor the movement of the person through the store or other areas”.

RFID technology is not new and has been used in the United States for many years in various business and military operations. RFID technology has been especially invaluable when utilized as barcodes in inventory control and management. Today, by using RFID tags (also known as microchips), you can even store your health records as an implanted chip inside your own body. In addition, government has proposed a future use of RFID tags in drivers licenses, passports, and even border crossing identification cards. These future applications of RFID tags could well compromise our personal security and be an invasion of our privacy in many aspects of our lives.

Indeed, it is the potential use of this next generation of RFID technology that is a concern from a security and privacy perspective. In the retail world, the intention is to place these enhanced RFID tags in all items including clothing. As a result, in the future, even the tags in our clothes could become a source of an invasion of our personal privacy.

For the retail industry, RFID tags would be an advertising and solicitation dream come true. However, for the consumer, it would fast become a security and invasion of privacy nightmare.