IBM slams RFID criticism as 'anti-retail'

A senior IBM executive says those criticising radio-frequency identification are confused and missing the benefits it will bring to all sectors of the community

A leading IBM executive has described critics of radio-frequency identification technologies as confused and described their push against the technology as masking an "anti-retail" thrust.

Dr Cheryl Shearer, Big Blue's global leader, business development for emerging markets, told ZDNet Australia in an interview this week that "I think the RFID privacy movement is primarily an anti-retail movement, because no one is discussing this at all in manufacturing process control or its use in libraries".

Shearer added that much of the confusion was generated because individuals mistook the capabilities of RFID for those of location-based services.

"The crux of the argument about privacy is that it's all very well to have an item marked and to be able to read it but it's quite another thing to be able to do some push-based marketing on the basis of it," said Shearer, arguing "that's what people are afraid of, location-based services, but that's not RFID."

RFID systems combine microchips and wireless gadgetry to provide tiny tracking devices for products, with the resulting set-ups expected to streamline supply chains and help retailers keep better records of their inventory.

Shearer characterised Katherine Albrecht, RFID privacy activist and founder and director of lobby group Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering, as being "confused" about the technologies that she is campaigning against. RFID tags used in retail stores, Shearer said, "[could] only measure a short distance".

"Katherine Albrecht has some sort of weird thing in her mind that helicopters might descend and follow you, I mean, how low are these things going to fly?" said Shearer. "I don't understand it basically. She has a particular view, that she's doing God's work and is going to protect us from the globalisation of retailing."

This is not the first time proponents of RFID technologies have come out against Albrecht -- in January this year, the Grocery Manufacturers' Association of America, whose members include RFID-active companies such as Gillette and Procter & Gamble -- was forced to apologise to the activist after inadvertently sending her an email indicating the organisation was looking to run a personal campaign against her.

Shearer's comments come amidst claims from the Australian Privacy Foundation yesterday that RFID could pose a huge threat to the privacy of consumers.

Shearer also said IBM was trialling the use of RFID tags in US schools for mentally disabled children in a move that she claimed had full support from most parents.

"These children are primarily kept indoors at the moment because they escape otherwise and might get hurt. So what we are going to do is with two of these huge schools, is to give the children an RFID bracelet that they take off at the end of the day so that we know where they are, and if they walk out the gate then we would know," said Shearer.

Ian Adair, manager for e-business and wireless solutions for IBM Asia Pacific, says it's this type of application that makes the most of the technology.

"Retail has little value for RFID in terms of barcode alternatives. It's not the simple use of this technology it’s the more complex processes that really start to make sense of it," he said.

Shearer claims IBM currently has several trials running in Australia using the technology, saying there is a "huge propensity for our customers to experiment".

"One of the Australian processes that's interesting me very much is the concept of paddock to plate, where they want to be able to label sheep and pigs and track them all the way through from the paddock to the rasher of bacon on your plate," said Shearer.

According to Shearer, a major Australian produce company is currently interested in applying the technology in this manner.

"We could not only label them so you knew if was a rasher of bacon from a specific pig in that paddock, we could know if it has ever been stored below a certain temperature or if anything has happen to it that has made it less palatable," she said.

Shearer says benefits of using the technology in this manner could be a reduction of supply returns and even back-tracking products in cases of poisoning, or finding them if there is a product recall.

"If you can reduce the number of product returns that have been paid for then you have cash-flow benefit," said Shearer.

For more coverage on ZDNet Australia, click here.