In a move to monitor inventory in its stores, Wal-Mart will launch an item-level Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) inventory tracking program starting August 1st, 2010. In its first phase, the system will track individual pairs of jeans, socks and underwear. The items will be tagged with removable RFID tags that can be read from a distance using hand-held scanners so employees will know what sizes are missing from shelves and what is in the stock room, all in a matter of seconds. If the program is successful, it will be rolled out at Wal-Mart’s more than 3750 U.S. stores with more products.
The upside of RFID systems have been well-documented –they help retailers better control their inventory and cut costs for consumers, create efficiencies in our health care system, increase customer convenience (enter the smart coffee mug), and save valuable time for consumers (let’s face it, the ability to push a shopping cart through an RFID reader that instantly calculates your grocery bill without removing a single item from the cart sounds down-right heavenly!).
RFID systems also continue to be rolled out new contexts: we have written about privacy issues surrounding the use of RFID in the workplace, Northern Arizona University is using their RFID enabled student cards to track student lecture attendance, transportation systems use RFID to monitor traffic flow, our passports are being equipped with RFID chips and our pets are tracked and monitored via RFID implants.
While these systems can be really useful and save us time and money, they also raise some serious privacy concerns. While the RFID tags in the Wal-Mart example are removable, not all RFID tags are (some are as small as a speck of dust and are virtually invisible). RFID tags can be tracked and hacked, may not be easy to turn off and can be read at a distance, potentially allowing tags to be read outside the original system for purposes limited only by human ingenuity.
As the tags get cheaper and the size of the tags gets smaller, extending the reach and uses for such systems will likely evolve too. Perhaps most concerning is that RFID systems have the potential to track individuals and could do so without their knowledge or consent. As a recent article notes:
“Location-aware apps are scary enough, based on GPS with the broad range they offer. But for the most part you still have to sign up for those. RFID is being implemented all around you…it can track infants to senior citizens with Alzheimer's. In between it can track your clothes, your purchases, your car - even you. RFID is on the verge of tracking us all, cradle to the grave.”
As we and others in a number of jurisdictions continue to wrestle with questions about RFID and privacy, the evolving application of RFID systems serve to highlight the fascinating convergence of emerging technologies and human creativity.