Our ‘Tagged’ future?

DQW Bureau
13 Nov 2003
New Update


Commenting upon our recent discussions of how UK has been parti-cularly aggressive in implemen-ting surveillance technology) and how tiny RFID tags (Radio Frequency IDentification tags) seem on the verge of making it very big), reader Ross Brown adds fuel to this fire by pointing us to an article which, in part, describes how some UK gro-cery stores are already putting individually-tagged items to work.

For example, razor blades are perfect shoplifting fodder; they’re small, expensive and lot of people are apparently willing to buy stolen packs of blades at a hefty discount. To help cou-nter this, Gillette has packed RFID tags into each package of blades sold in these stores and the shelf that they’re on, moni-tors when an individual pac-kage of blades has been removed from the shelf. At that point a digital camera captures the image of the person remov-ing the blades while the compu-ter system remembers the RFID tag’s specific (unique) number. 

Later, if the person goes through the checkout line but doesn’t pay for each package of blades he removed from the shelf, another picture is taken, the police are called and lots of explaining will ensue. (Appa-rently, the police were startled the first times that they were handed the photographic evi-dence from both the shelf and the checkout counter–rather good evidence.) Of course, I’d hate to be targeted if I happe-ned, legitimately, to decide I didn’t want both of the packa-ges of blades that I had picked off the shelf, and set one pac-kage down on a nearby (dumb and unmonitored) shelf...


And there’s more to come:

“...The tagging industry, when engaged in conversa-tions with itself, is still raving about the prospect of track-ing customers while they are still in the store. Among the benefits of RFID, the Auto-ID Center’s website cites this: 

“Readers on the store’s shelves will provide the first extensive real-time view of customer behavior in the store. By recording how often an item is picked up, purchased or put back, retailers and their supp-liers will have instant feedback on promotions... providing the means to better tailor pro-motions to a specific market segment.” 


In an article entitled, “Will RFID help win customer loya-lty? We think so!”, Texas Instru-ments, an RFID company, sug-gests a possible scenario if a consumer carries the tag in a purse or wallet (implying a loyalty card): 

“The technology has the potential to tell retailers exactly who’s in their store at any given moment while offering full purchase histories for each shopper.”

According to ‘RFID Journal’, plans to realize this potential are already under way. In April this year, IBM announced it would test RFID tags in bank cards, so that customers can be identified (and, you might extrapolate, treated according to their status) the minute they enter the bank.”


Reading this, the broad use of RFID tags might seem so invasive that people will shout a resounding “No!” and vote with their dollars (or pounds, etc), purchasing merchandise that isn’t tagged or shopping at stores without readers. But although today’s ‘tag-less’ loyalty cards are ‘lower-tech’, consider how they have already been accepted by many to get discounts off (some say) artificially inflated “regular” prices that are charged to the


True, people could drive farther to a chain that doesn’t issue such cards, but how many do? And, what happens once manufacturers generally decide to include RFID tags as globally as they print UPC codes today?

Smaller yet?

Early tags were fairly large, such as the paper labels, or those annoying pincer-like pla-stic clamps often found on clothing. But not for a while now. Brought to our attention by reader Don Lyle, in 2001 Hitachi announced an RFID chip that was only .4mm square. It did require the atta-chment of an external antenna, but it was still pretty small. Now though, they’ve improved upon the design by using on-chip bump-metallization technology to form an internal antenna so that no external antenna is required at all!


These literally ‘speck of dust’ sized chips simply work as-is (no power supply needed - remember?) and they can easily be embedded in just about anything from video-tapes, to food packages, to individual dollar bills and even into clothing. 

(These chips are already so small, that I wonder what would happen if (when?) you breathe one in or ingest it in some food.

Are you then traceable forever...? Now that you are ‘chipped’, the checkout gates will record the ID of your chip along with the IDs of those chips in the products you’re purchasing. Then, a small comparison of purchase databases could easily identify you, even if you pay by cash. From then on, the wide network of such chip sensors would automatically track your every move...)


By the way, today’s RFID tags are just the beginning–what happens if we dramatically shrink their size to microscopic, make them smart, and give them the ability to communi-cate? This would be ‘Smart Dust’, as described by Dr Ric-hard Satava of DARPA, MIT and University of Washington pedigree“They (Smart Dust motes) will communicate with each other. So the environment is going to be smart instead of dumb. They’re going to be in the food you eat, the clothes you wear, embedded in your body, absolutely everywhere. For example, when you came into this room, this desk would know it was you and rearrange itself for you.

Have you been able to buy anything lately that doesn’t have a bar code on it? Probably not. But it’s dumb. In the future, it will be smart. You plant the field and you spray it with the fertilizers and insecticides and smart dust–maybe a thousand different sensors per milli-meter–and as the food comes up the smart dust gets incor-porated into the plants. And the plants talk to the harvester: “Pick me. I’m ready. Don’t pick me. I’m not ready.” It goes into the store. You’ve got a little handheld and you talk to the artichokes. “How ripe are you? How much do you weigh?” A world that used to be dumb and unconnected now gets connected, and that informa-tion gets shared.

We will have sensors thro-ughout our bodies. So, as doc-tors, we’ll be able to contin-uously monitor the health of individuals.”


As I’ve said before, there’s much to like about what per-vasive RFID tags and their inf-rastructure (and later Smart Dust) can provide, such as easy tracking of individual packages that are out of date, recalled, etc, plus significant benefits throughout the supply chain and more. 

Fascinating technology. Of course as I suggested above, such ‘traceability’, if carried too far, could have negative impli-cations for free societies. So as is the case with most techno-logies, we need to carefully understand the risk/benefit tradeoffs of RFID tags as we begin to implement them into our societies. They (and other technologies) may turn out to be totally benign to a given society. Or they may clearly be beyond the pale. Or, it may turn out that the risk/benefit tradeoff may still weigh-in on the side of implementing the technologies–with appro-priate controls. But we don’t want to ‘fall into’ such decisions with our eyes wide shut; we want to make those decisions with a wide panoply of know-ledgeable eyes very wide open.

Because, after all, we will have to quite literally live with the results of our actions (or inactions).

But at what cost to personal privacy? Remember–if your bankcard is so-tagged or if you’ve eaten ‘Smart Dust’ tag-ged food, then effectively–‘Tagged R You’.

What might it take to unleash this RFID tag tsunami? How about (eventual) manda-tes from one or a few huge pur-chasers like Wal-Mart, or on a vastly larger scale the US Depar-tment of Defense–which has just mandated that every one of the 45 million line items that it purchases, have an RFID tag on its case or pallet! (Although not yet in each individual item within the case or pallet. Yet.) 

Let’s be sure that we implement new technologies in ways and with controls that we’re comfortable (quite literally) living with.

Don’t blink!

Jeffrey R. Harrow