TCS Daily


Tagging Along

By Waldemar Ingdahl - April 13, 2004 12:00 AM

The days of supermarket bar codes are numbered. Soon the cashier won't even have to pull merchandise across a laser beam (over and over again...). Smart chips will record which can of soda pop has been pulled from the shelf and who pulled it; shoppers will be able to leave the store and all databases and credit accounts will update themselves.

Bar codes have long helped retailers keep track of their inventory. But now we are in for a radical change. RFID, "radio frequency tags", not only will revolutionize the retail industry but will also affect much of our everyday life. When prices fall on the technology involved, RFID could be used to identify just about anything and store information on it.

But in a world where all objects can tell a receiver where they are, what will happen to privacy?

The principle is the same as what is now used for shoplifting alarm devices. A thin spool receives radio waves and transforms them into current that runs a small chip. Regular anti-theft tags simply emit back another radio wave and set off an alarm. With a chip the tag can be made smarter. It re-emits an ID code in order to log precisely which tag passed by the radio wave reader. More advanced chips can respond to digital requests and store new information. They become a sort of "identity" that follows the object and contains readable information.

Microelectronic devices are becoming ever more minuscule and cheaper, and thus tags can be made nearly invisible and hidden in products or in packing. They can be retrofitted to products, which is difficult with bar codes. Their price is estimated to drop very soon to a eurocent or so, and thus tags can be placed affordably in unprecedented numbers of goods. Products need only to be in the vicinity of a reader in order to report their identity. Hundreds of tags can be read each second and the system is connected directly to storage databases. The whole chain from producer, wholesale dealer, and retail store can use the identifier as well as the consumer, the authorities and waste management.

The technology is already used for pet IDs, car parts, car tolls and self-service petrol stations. A producer like Gillette has bought more than one billion tags in order to identify all its razorblades. Delta Airlines is testing them for luggage handling. The European Central Bank is considering tagging euro bills of higher denominations in 2005 to reduce forgeries.

Big retail chains see huge profits in cutting storage costs. Cargo containers, packages and individual goods can be tracked, which reduces losses and thefts during transportation, and "smart shelves" detect when customers remove products. Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, is looking to integrate RFID technology, making it probable that it will come into wide usage.

It may be helpful for supermarkets to know where their goods are, but do we really want to bring home a readable plastic bag full of information about our habits and our personal lives? Do we want to walk into a store carrying a wallet that signals how much money it contains? Today's consumers may not accept these technological advances if they don't see any clear personal benefit.

But in fact this identity technology has many positive aspects. Food poisoning can be tracked to the source. Waste management can be made automatic. Books that produce their virtual equivalent when held up against a computer, business cards that open up web pages, papers that "know" what is written on them and can be traced on disordered desks. Smart fridges that inform the owner when food has gone stale and make shopping lists automatically. In medicine, tags would be very useful, with packages that warn you if you are about to dose them improperly and equipment and medicines that control themselves (in principle, each and every pill could be fitted with a tag). In fact, RFID might be the system that makes the term "ubiquitous computing" something more than a slogan.

The tags will also place more demands on IT infrastructures; this might be an incentive for organizations to think innovatively about them. But, most importantly, RFID highlight the fact that innovation in general purpose technologies requires a new kind of developmental dialogue. Producers, consumers and developers have to agree on the nature and mutual benefits of RFID systems, since we have seen too many hyped up technologies fail. The fact that we have seen some consumer-group uproar over secret testing of the tags is not good.

A still more controversial issue is certain to follow: tagging humans. It may make life easier for the police and for emergency healthcare providers (and might even become necessary when integrating the new informational healthcare systems). But obviously this would raises new, previously unforeseen issues of privacy and human dignity.

The debate could devolve into a discussion of systems that damage the integrity of the consumer, or even a scare campaign that promotes regulations to block this beneficial technology. This would be unfortunate since we need to know more about it. Ultimately, the issue here is not about a specific technology, but about who will control vast amounts of personal information. Let's hope individuals control as much information as possible about themselves, and that the technology supports this.


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