Katherine Albrecht is the Founder and Director of Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering (CASPIAN)
What factors have contributed to the news media’s negative portrayal of RFID technology?
By its very nature, RFID technology is disturbing to people. According to Procter & Gamble research published in January 2003, 78% of people surveyed respond negatively to RFID on privacy grounds. (See page 11 of this Auto-ID Center Document) At the end of the day, the members of the “news media” are people too. They’re going to have the same negative reactions we’ve seen from everyone else. The bottom line is that most people, unless they have a financial or professional stake in RFID’s success, simply don’t like the technology.
Another factor undermining the public perception of RFID is the secretive (many would say deceptive) way that the technology has been tested on consumers.
People don’t want tracking devices in their underwear (as Benetton planned), they don’t want hidden cameras taking mugshots of them when they pick a product up from a store shelf (as Gillette did), they don’t want P&G executives hundreds of miles away watching them pick up lipstick (as happened in Broken Arrow), and they don’t want tracking devices slipped into their wallets without their knowledge or permission (as the RFID industry’s flagship “Future Store” did in Germany).
It’s hard to defend or trust an industry that engages in these behaviors. It doesn’t help when industry refers to unwitting consumers as “guinea pigs” (as IBM did to shoppers at the “Future Store”) or when they to try to discredit their opponents through personal attack and other unethical means (as the GMA did in an email mistakenly sent to me, or see IBM’s recent comments).
All it takes is a simple dose of the truth for the media to recognize that the companies involved with RFID simply cannot be trusted to be honest and above board about RFID or their future plans for it.
Should there be federal legislation limiting the use of RFID technology and the information it is able to gather?
In general, legislation is a poor way to solve consumer privacy problems – with one exception. It is appropriate for legislation to protect consumers by preventing fraud and misrepresentation. For that reason, CASPIAN has developed sample federal legislation titled the “RFID Right to Know Act” that would require labeling on consumer items containing RFID tags.
We believe that, for example, selling a pair of shoes that doubles as a tracking device without telling consumers about the RFID device it contains is essentially a form of fraud. When a shopper buys a pair of shoes, she has a reasonable expectation that she is getting shoes – not something else. Once mandatory labeling is in place, if people chose to buy shoes that can track them, that should be their free choice. But consumers must be informed of what that choice means.
We have never called for legislation to ban either RFID tags or supermarket loyalty cards. We do believe, however, that these technologies pose serious risks to consumers, and we have called on the world’s shoppers to reject them. CASPIAN hopes to see both technologies ultimately fail in the
marketplace purely as a result of consumer opinion.
In the long run, such outright market failure would offer more effective consumer protections than temporary legislative band-aids. (What the legislature grants, the legislature can easily take away, limiting the field of consumer espionage to itself.) Given a market environment free from fraud and misrepresentation, at the end of the day it is ultimately the consumer’s responsibility to protect her privacy.
What steps should companies exploring item-level RFID programs take to protect their customers from perceived or actual violations of privacy?
In most cases, asking how a company exploring item-level RFID tagging can protect their customers’ privacy is like asking a fox how he can best ensure the safety of your chickens. The question itself hardly makes sense in today’s surveillance-happy retail environment.
People don’t realize the vast amounts of money and resources already being expended to watch and record consumers’ purchases, movements and activities in retail stores. I come to this discussion with a degree in International Marketing from the 1980’s, and I can’t tell you how much the field has changed since then. A marketing degree today is closer to an espionage degree than a real business degree. The problem with RFID on the item level is that it’s practically tailor-made for that purpose – it’s stealthy, silent, and unobtrusive while at the same time incredibly – indeed, almost unbelievably – powerful.
With item-level RFID, coupled with a way to identify shoppers, say, by putting an RFID tag in their loyalty card (as Texas Instruments would like to do) or by embedding a hidden RFID tag in their checkbook (as IBM plans) it would be possible to discriminate between shoppers, perhaps by treating the low income ones poorly through “marginal service and high prices designed to drive the unattractive consumer somewhere else” (as suggested by industry consultant Marty Abrams) or favoring the “valuable” customers with courteous service at the same time you are training your microscope on them (as IBM suggests above).
I could fill volumes with all the surveillance applications that marketers and their ilk have cooked up for RFID. It would be naive and foolish to think that the people who are today embedding GPS tracking devices in our grocery carts and installing heat sensors and hidden cameras in the canned soup aisle to better watch us will not find ways to exploit the market research potential of RFID. The temptation will simply be too great for the marketing and CRM (Customer Relationship Management) industries not to use this silent, unobtrusive technology to gain the enhanced “customer insights” they’ve been trained and paid to pursue.
The bottom line is that companies shouldn’t implement item-level RFID tagging if they care about privacy because it simply cannot be safely deployed in the current climate of CRM-driven privacy abuses. If it is deployed on the item level, it will be abused on the retail store floor.
If you’re concerned about customer privacy, item-level tagging is just not an option.
Our position on item-level tagging is spelled out in more detail in the “Position Statement on the Use of RFID in Consumer Products” that we issued in November. You can find it on our website.
If you have further questions about CASPIAN, you might find the answers in our FAQ.
Katherine Albrecht, Ed.M.
Founder and Director, CASPIAN Consumer Advocacy
Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering
Advanced Doctoral Candidate, Harvard University