Scanner chips irk privacy advocates


Katherine Albrecht has a thing about privacy. That's why the Nashua resident hasn't used a credit card in over two years and only shops at Internet retailers who accept money orders.

"There's got to be some degree of private life," Albrecht says. She wants to live her life without having her every action filed in a corporate database. Indeed, Albrecht has founded a privacy lobbying group called CASPIAN (Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering).

CASPIAN has directed most of its fire at supermarket discount cards, which allow retailers to collect data on your buying habits. Now it's taking aim at a new target - much smaller than a discount card, and in Albrecht's view, a lot more dangerous.

The Italian clothing firm Benetton this month said it would begin inserting tiny radio frequency identification chips, or RFIDs, into some of its clothing products. These chips will let the company track a particular sweater or skirt from the factory floor to the shelf of the store. The Gillette Co. in Boston is doing the same with personal grooming items such as Mach 3 Turbo razors. The company recently signed a contract for a half-billion RFID chips, to be provided by the delightfully named Alien Technology Corp. of California.

Low-power tracking

The RFID concept, developed in large part at the Auto-ID Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is seductive in its cleverness. You take a microchip the size of a pinhead and attach an antenna. Embedded on the chip is a product identification number that's drawn from a vast pool of 96-bit numbers.

Internet addresses are 32 bits long. There are a total of 4.2 billion such addresses, tops. Moving up to 96 bits gives you a lot more numbers to play with, so many that you can assign a unique code to every single manufactured product - not just an ID code for each car, but a code for each nut and bolt.

The chips sell for less than a dime, partly because they don't contain batteries. Instead, you pass a chip within a few feet of a reader, which broadcasts radio waves. This feeble stream of energy provides enough juice for the chip to wake up and radio back. So RFID chips only go on the air when they're near a reader; even then they must be within a few feet in order to work.

Albrecht fears that readers will be installed everywhere and connected to databases filled with personal information. Imagine a video screen on a grocery cart, beaming customized ads at you, because it recognized the RFID chip in your shoe.

Albrecht even worries that retailers will persuade consumers to install RFID readers in their homes, in exchange for price discounts. Then they'll be able to track your consumption patterns down to the last bottle of milk. Says Albrecht, "You've essentially created a world in which there is no privacy."

But Gillette spokesman Paul Fox says his company has no interest in following people home. The real reason for RFID, he says, is that misplaced and stolen inventory costs American companies $70 billion a year.

With RFID, companies can know exactly where every item is stored. When fresh merchandise arrives, the warehouse's RFID reader will automatically detect it and log it in. Same thing at the retail store. Gillette is even working on a "smart shelf" that will be tested at a Wal-Mart store in Brockton, Mass., later this year. Every time somebody carries off a razor, the store's computer deducts it from inventory. If somebody picks up 10, that person is probably a shoplifter. So the shelf instructs the store's video system to take a picture of the customer and warns store security.

Fox insists this is all Gillette has in mind. "We have no interest in collecting data beyond the shelf," he says.

Notification sought

But Albrecht figures RFID is bound to be abused unless it's regulated. She favors legislation requiring that consumers be notified when a product contains an RFID tag. The idea also appears in an RFID Bill of Rights suggested by MIT graduate student Simson Garfinkel. He thinks consumers should also have the right to know any time a device reads data from the tag and a right to have tags permanently switched off. But Garfinkel wants voluntary compliance, not a law.

In any case, consumers will have to ask to have each item's chip turned off, every time they go shopping.

Kevin Ashton, executive director of the Auto-ID Center, would rather you left them on, however.

Say you want to return a defective product. Who needs a receipt? Just scan the chip. If a maker of infant car seats issues a recall, you could scan the chip to learn if your kid's seat is among the defective ones.

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