RFID Guidelines Get Mixed Review

May 12, 2006 - 10:11

The newly unveiled best-practices guidelines for radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, released in early May, are an attempt by a group of businesses and consumer advocates to protect consumer privacy.

The guidelines suggest retailers take stronger action to safeguard customers. Among other recommendations, the guidelines advise notifying consumers when goods have been affixed with the tags, because when tags get buried in packaging or labels, buyers cannot always see them. Once consumers find the tags, they can dispose of them, but not easily enough, the group said. It contends the tags cannot be easily disabled. As for the tracking information on the tags, businesses should be ready to supply that to consumers if they ask for it.

Dissenters also worry the recommendations do not address privacy issues: Because RFID tags can provide access to products shipped anywhere at any time, companies worry that privacy will be jeopardized. Opponents of the guidelines were also concerned about the plan’s effectiveness. Lee Tien, a senior staff lawyer for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, called the guidelines a valuable starting point, but said they leave the industry too much “wiggle room,” according to the New York Times.

Last year, one survey reported that a perceived lack of privacy caused 7 percent of 89 retailers to cut down on RFID investment. The National Retail Federation, a vocal privacy advocate, is one of the associations opposing the guidelines. But their concerns have not stopped Wal-Mart’s support of the tags.

Two years ago, Wal-Mart agreed to begin requiring suppliers to use a tagging system called electronic product code (E.P.C.) when shipping their pallets and cartons. E.P.C., which has its own privacy protections, may become a model for future RFID regulations.

The horticulture industry could use RFID tags to track products from supplier to retailer. When a retailer’s supply is running low, the system would tell it so. The tags can store more information than bar codes and be read more quickly. Many horticulture companies, though, have been slow to accept the tags because of the costs associated with them.

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