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Privacy activists demand Tesco boycott over RFID

Tesco's plan to increase the use of radio barcode technology is under fire from campaigners who claim it is a privacy nightmare
Written by Andrew Donoghue, Contributor

Consumer privacy advocates have launched a worldwide plan to boycott Tesco stores due to concerns over the retailer's increasing use of Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology.

Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering (CASPIAN) launched the campaign on Tuesday, during an item about RFID on the BBC's Newsnight television programme.

Caspian's director and founder Katherine Albrecht outlined the group's objections to Tesco's plans to expand tagging of individual items in its stores. She claimed the move "would involve potentially hundreds of thousands more shoppers… it essentially means that more people will be taking home items containing spy chips".

Tesco has been experimenting with RFID since 1992 and has discussed plans to integrate the technology into all the key points in its supply chain, in stores and, eventually, at all its tills.

Tesco's current trials of the technology centre around using RFID to improve the efficiency and security of its supply chain by tagging crates or boxes of goods. The retailer has also explored tagging individual items such as DVDs.

Caspian is particularly concerned about item-level RFID tagging, especially the potential for retailers to be able to track goods after they leave the store -- which it views as invasion of consumer privacy.

"We believe Tesco's decision to pursue item-level RFID tagging is irresponsible," added Albrecht. "We're calling on consumers to boycott the chain until the practice is stopped. If people must shop at Tesco, we are asking them to reduce their purchases. After all, as Tesco says ' every little helps'."

Speaking at the third annual RFID ROI conference, in London's docklands yesterday -- before the Caspian boycott was launched -- Tesco director of group technology and architecture John Clarke said item-level tagging had enormous benefits for retailers and consumers alike.

"We are number two in the UK for DVDs but managing 115 DVDs in the store is quite confusing. People come pick them and put them in the wrong place -- it’s a very time consuming process. But we put in intelligent shelves using RFID, and they were able to tell us how many items were in each place and what was misplaced," he explained. "That process takes a fraction of the time it used to take and there is a much higher chance that customers will come away with what they want."

When questioned by the audience at the event about the privacy debate around RFID technology, Clarke said while there was a lot of misleading information around the issue, he was sympathetic to consumers concerns

"Privacy concerns -- I think they do go hot and cold around RFID. There are some suggestions of what will happen which just ain't true but yet the theory is there. If people do have concerns they must be addressed."

Although Tesco is currently trialling item level tagging on DVDs, Clarke claimed that there were no immediate plans to use the technology to automate payments or integrate it into store cards.

"There is no suggestion of linking RFID into cards at the moment as there are too many privacy concerns at this time -- Metro (the European retailer) tried that and there was a very negative reaction."

Regarding deactivation after purchase, Clarke said that as the tags are attached to the plastic packaging around its DVDs, they can easily be removed. He also said that the retailer was looking to install a deactivation device in its stores in the future.

"I don't know where we are yet. We are still working on what is the right method for deactivation. There is a need to do it but frankly we don't get many customers asking for it," he explained. "One half of me says it's right to deactivate but I can't see anybody wanting to read my tag anyway. The other half says I would like to be able to go back to the store and say, 'This device is faulty', and prove that I bought this from the store, without having to have a receipt -- how do I do that? So there is a trade-off there."

Caspian has launched a Web site -- boycotttesco.com -- to back-up its campaign.

Tesco is aiming to complete the first phase of its radio barcode roll-out by the end of the year across its 1,400 stores and 28 distribution centres. The retailer has placed an order for around 4,000 RFID readers and 16,000 antennae with vendor ADT if its trials prove successful.

Tesco operates over 2,300 stores worldwide. Approximately 1,900 are situated in the UK, with some 260 in the rest of Europe and around 180 in Asia.

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