Businesses are all too keen to talk up the potential of radio frequency ID (RFID) while privacy campaigners are similarly vocal in calling for some hardcore data protection to go with the new tagging technology, and one of the emerging battlegrounds is all about when exactly the tracking chips need to die.
Item-level tagging is some way off yet, mainly due to cost rather than retailers' lack of enthusiasm but, when it does kick off in earnest, it's worth putting money on consumers being at loggerheads with retailers over when exactly to switch off and kill the chips.
RFID tags can be read, either by a store or by an unrelated third party, unless they're shut down by the company that installed them in the product.
While a consumer might quite fancy the idea of walking up to the checkout and having his new $9,000 plasma-screen TV scanned instantaneously, he might not be so pleased that any passer-by with a reader can find out what he's got in the back of his car. He may also just not like the idea of a supermarket being able to scan his goods after he's left the store.
But when should the tag's tracking powers be turned off? Kill commands, as they're known, do exist. The idea is that when a shopper passes a certain point, any active RFID chip essentially shuts itself down (German supermarket Metro tried similar technology with its RFID rollout and was rather red-faced to find its "kill" commands were more like a "nasty-kick-in-the-shins" commands).
The question remains: why would we want to keep the tags active once we've left our local Tesco and should retailers be allowed to?
Burk Kaliski, chief scientist and director of RSA Laboratories, believes there's a strong case for chips that never die. That doesn't mean always-on though. They would be more zombie than normal chip--alive but not capable of doing anything without being activated.
When the chips leave the store, they should be switched from non-private to private so they remain intact and in some select instances can be returned to readability, but otherwise are immune to shop-scanning, he said.
Introducing kill commands, Kaliski said, would "discourage innovation" and would be "counterproductive". There are indeed uses being touted for zombie tags. Taking goods back to a shop, for example, would be easier; recalling faulty or dangerous goods would be simpler; and distributing pharmaceuticals could be made safer by using RFID to scan for potentially harmful combinations.
But is that enough?
According to Katherine Albrecht of privacy group Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering (Caspian), the disadvantages far outweigh the benefits. "Whoever made the tag is the entity that can reactivate it... that's even more dangerous [than kill-command chips]. If you believe a chip is dead, you don't take common-sense precautions to protect your privacy," she said.
The issues of individual privacy are more pressing when it comes to item-level tagging--the more commonly practiced case of pallet level-tagging is less of a threat, according to Geoff Barraclough, marketing director of BT Auto-ID Services. "With the use of RFID in the supply chain, there are no privacy implications," he said.
Consumers may be able to dodge uninvited eyes gleaning information from RFID tags but businesses may not be so lucky. With new extra-long read-range RFID equipment hitting the market, the motive and opportunity arise for underhand retailers or suppliers to gain an advantage [on competitors] by picking up on who's moving what goods, where and when.
With standards yet to be sorted out and early adopters falling over themselves to implement RFID rollouts, it seems the big names may have also forgotten to protect their own privacy.