Chip off the old block

commentary Will RFID be the ruin of mankind, or will we perhaps see some benefit from the technology -- like lower prices?In the natural progression of a promising technology moving from the initial hype phase through to the popular acceptance stage, there should be a step called the hysteria  phase.



commentary Will RFID be the ruin of mankind, or will we perhaps see some benefit from the technology -- like lower prices?

In the natural progression of a promising technology moving from the initial hype phase through to the popular acceptance stage, there should be a step called the hysteria  phase.

And a prime example of a technology that is currently entering that phase is RFID, radio frequency identification. Before this year is out, I predict you'll be sick of hearing about it (if you're not already).

The funny thing is, RFID is not that new a technology -- it's been around since the late '60s. Using wireless tags to identify and track objects is the technology behind car tags that enable them to cruise through the E-lanes at toll booths, behind the tiny pet identification chips, and even the anti-theft tags punched into items of clothing in department stores.

Until recently, however, the transponders or tags used were big, bulky, and relatively costly to produce. Now they can be as tiny as a pencil lead -- and those that are just basic read-only tags with limited read ranges can be as cheap as, well, chips. It's probably that new affordability that got things off to a bad start.

"I thought I'd write an April Fool's column that talked about how our children would all be subject to manadatory "chipping" this year, but there's enough hysteria on the subject already."
Last year, clothing maker Benetton was reported to be planning to sew tiny tags into every article of clothing it produced -- to track them through the supply chain as they made their way to the maker's "more than 5000 stores globally". Benetton was indeed looking at how it might be able to use RFID technology, but not in all of its lines of clothing and certainly not to 5000 stores (when it only had around 1800, according to a follow-up report in RFID Journal ).

But that was only the beginning of the hysteria, soon people were saying that Benetton was going to use these tags to invade customer privacy by tracking buying habits, and setting up targeted marketing schemes. (At the time, the only post-sale use suggested by the company was that perhaps the chips could be used to tell washing machines equipped with a built-in reader how to wash the garments.)

Benetton was met with a flood of calls, complaints, and queries from privacy groups and journalists armed with wrong facts and wild stories, and subsequently went very quiet on RFID.

Next on the hysteria block was Gillette, who decided to track their small but high-value packs of razor blades through the distribution chain using tiny RFID chips. Not only were these purported to be destined to invade customer privacy, they were even going to be used to determine when a customer threw away a pack so they could be targeted for a new sale. (Smart bins were being developed perhaps?)

Then things got very interesting: a single store in the UK decided to trial a system that made use of the Gillette tags. A hidden camera would take a photo of any customer who removed a pack of razor blades from the rack, and then again at the cash register in a poorly thought-out attempt to catch possible shoplifters (what if the customer decided to put the blades back?).

Just the other day, I was asked by a radio interviewer about my thoughts on "what Gillette had done". Gillette didn't do anything other than try to improve their delivery to market (though this didn't stop the "Boycott Gillette" site from going up). It's not the technology we have to worry about, it's what people do with it. After all, RFID is not much more than a wireless barcode system. If Woolworths wanted to track your buying habits by linking the contents of your shopping trolley to your credit card, you can bet there'd be an outcry. So shall we get rid of barcodes?

What are your thoughts on RFID? Send them to edit@zdnet.com.au.

This article was first published in Technology & Business magazine.
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