How to get consumers to swallow electronic tags

One of RFID's proponents explains how to sell the technology to consumers, while privacy activists keep fighting to protect them from secret RFID tagging

Last week's Enterprise Wireless Technology show in London heard a proponent of radiofrequency identification (RFID) tags explain some of the techniques that retailers should use to overcome customer opposition to this new technology, which some privacy groups vehemently oppose.

Derren Bibby, chief technologist at IT services firm Noblestar, delivered the keynote address on RFID and told his audience that companies who deploy RFID will "need to educate people" about the technology.

RFID tags, which are tiny chips that can be fitted to an object and tracked wirelessly, have generated a storm of controversy. Supporters say they will help retailers to run their supply chains and protect their goods from shoplifters. Opponents label them as a privacy nightmare that would give governments and big business the opportunity to monitor the behaviour and movement of citizens.

Bibby was dismissive of RFID opponents such as CASPIAN (Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering).

"They're some kind of fringe group in America. These are the kind of people you need to watch out for," said Bibby, adding that the group wasn't going to last long.

Katherine Albrecht, director of CASPIAN and a doctoral researcher at Harvard University, has fiercely rebutted the suggestion that her group don't represent widely held views. She points out that research has found that around 70 percent of the public are concerned about the implications of RFID.

"I think his comments have real sinister overtones," Albrecht told ZDNet UK.

"It's a shame not to think, 'maybe we are deploying a technology that has real privacy concerns' and reconsider it. Instead, their approach is 'How can we get this past people?'"

With RFID deployment expected to accelerate next year, Bibby suggested that retailers could try and persuade people that RFID tags could actually improve their lives. He painted a picture of a future in which a fridge could check the RFID tags on its contents, flagging up which food was about to pass its use-by date and even suggesting a recipe that would use it up.

"If you sell that to consumers, they will be more accepting about the technology," he said. 

Alternatively, retailers could set up a system on site to deactivate RFID tags on purchased items. Bibby claimed that few people at a RFID trial in Germany had bothered with this option, though.

"It was hardly ever used. People don't seem that bothered about it [the RFID tags] in the end," Bibby said.

Albrecht disputes that deactivating an RFID tag is so simple.

"The only way I know of doing it is to pop it into a microwave, and three times out of four the item catches fire," Albrecht said.

Others option offered by Bibby would be to attach RFID tags to 'swing tags' rather than directly to the item, so they can be snipped off at the counter, or to add a protective covering to the tag to prevent it being scanned.

Last week the US Food and Drug Administration approved a plan to allow hospitals to place RFID tags under patients' skin. This caused widespread concern among privacy advocates, some of whom believe it is a sign that the RFID industry is poised to bulldoze through opposition and begin widespread deployment of tags.

Albrecht says CASPIAN will continue to lobby for mandatory labelling of all RFID-tagged products, so that consumers would be aware when they bought a tagged product.

"We are not seeking a ban or regulation in any way -- as we know the government would work any such regulation in its favour," explained Albrecht.