Tesco using RFID tags to track shoppers; MP wants regulation

Out-Law News | 31 Jul 2003 | 12:00 am | 2 min. read

Retail giant Tesco is using RFID technology in its Cambridge store. The electronic tags are being tested on Gillette razor blades and send a message to a CCTV camera whenever a customer picks up a packet. But a Labour MP fears for our privacy and wants new regulations for the technology.

A radio frequency identification (RFID) tag comprises a microchip and a tiny antenna that transmits the data from the chip to a reader. The reader is activated whenever the antenna comes into range and the data can be used to ring up a purchase or trigger an event, such as opening a door. Usually the range is no more than a few feet.

The Guardian newspaper reports that in the Tesco trial a CCTV camera will take a picture at the time the packet is taken off the shelf, and that a further picture is taken at the checkout – again triggered by the tags inserted in the razor blade packaging.

A spokesman for Tesco told the Guardian that, "Customers know that there are CCTV cameras in the store". He told the newspaper that the RFID trial was intended to assist with supply chain management, not security, but the Guardian reports that Alan Robinson, who manages the store, has already provided police with photos of a shoplifter stealing blades.

RFID technology is controversial, but looks set to replace bar codes at the checkout. The problem is in convincing a nervous public that they are a beneficial technology.

In Germany RFID tags are being tested by retailer Metro AG in loyalty cards and smart shopping trolleys. These guide customers to chip-enabled goods, using stored information on past shopping habits to point out special offers or the location of preferred products.

The products also communicate with the smart shelving on which they are located, indicating when more stock is needed, and with the checkout desk, speeding up the payment time.

As with the Tesco trial the new technology should improve retail efficiency by making stock checks and payment easier. It also improves in-store security because the tags can be used to track a product.

But this is where the problem lies, because tracking is not necessarily something that a consumer wants, particularly after he or she has left the store. And this is a fear that has been detected by Labour MP Tom Watson who yesterday submitted a motion for debate on the regulation of RFID devices, according to Silicon.com.

The IT news site reports that Watson submitted the motion because, without proper regulation, he warns that RFID tags are "open to abuse by unscrupulous retailers," adding that they "push our current data protection laws to the limit."

Bennetton recently announced that it was going to introduce the technology in its clothes. Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering (CASPIAN) promptly campaigned for a boycott of Bennetton. The Italian company back-peddled, saying it would first conduct a feasibility study into RFID technology.

Shops are advised to consider the privacy implications when implementing the technology, not least the question of whether or not they need to have activated chips within products once the products have left the premises.

A major reason for keeping the chips active is to monitor returns – an occasionally necessary link in the retail supply chain. If chips are left active, consumers need to be told up-front about what is being done and why. They must be given the opportunity to opt out of this.

These issues are addressed in the current issue (Issue 7) of OUT-LAW Magazine.

There is also a set of FAQs on RFID from AIM, the global trade association for the Automatic Identification and Data Capture (AIDC) industry, which separates some facts from the fiction. It is available at:
www.aimglobal.org/technologies/rfid/rfid_faqs.asp