Levi's New Style: RFID

By Renee Boucher Ferguson  |  Posted 05-01-2006
Radio-frequency identification technology, also known as RFID, has its supporters and detractors. Both groups now have something to talk about.

A working group of major companies—IBM is the charter member—and advocacy groups announced May 1 a set of RFID best practices to protect consumer privacy as it relates to item level tagging.

The group, led by the CDT (Center for Democracy and Technology), includes a who's who list of companies involved one way or another in RFID testing or software development: Microsoft, Intel, Cisco Systems, Proctor & Gamble, Eli Lilly and Co., American Library Association, National Consumers League, aQuantive, VeriSign and Visa.

On the flip side, Levi Strauss & Co., one of the nation's largest clothing manufacturers, confirmed April 28 its testing of RFID "hang tags" on clothing shipped to two retail outlets in Mexico and one in the United States—a move that many consumer advocates point to as an outright invasion of privacy rights given the tags will be attached to individual items consumers wear.

Levi is using RFID to track inventory at the test stores at the retailer's requests; it has no plans to use RFID in any of its 18 Levi's brand stores, according to Jeff Beckman, director of worldwide and U.S. communications for Levi Strauss in San Francisco.

"Our philosophy is that [RFID tests] are being driven by retailers," said Beckman.

"So future tests, whether it happens, is being driven by retailers, and only if they are consistent with guidelines [put forth by consumer privacy advocate group CASPIAN], which is very transparent."

Click here to read more about RFID privacy.

The item-level tags used in the Levi stores, hung from a pair of jeans much like a price tag would be, are identified as having an RFID chip in them—and removable, according to Beckman.

There are also signs posted in each test store explaining RFID.

"It's a little 2-by-4-inch tag that's removable," said Beckman.

"It's absolutely not embedded. It's readable from 1 to 3 feet and really has no value to anyone," other than for inventory tracking.

RFID uses microchips to track items through radio waves that can be detected at a distance.

The fear with privacy advocates is that, particularly in the case of embedded tags in everyday items like clothing, people's movements will be tracked by retailers looking to extract marketing information or, in a worse-case scenario, by the government.

The privacy advocacy group CASPIAN (Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering) along with about 40 other privacy and civil liberties organizations, in 2003 called for a moratorium on RFID-chipped items for consumers until there is more technology-specific information available—a moratorium Levi Strauss has declined to honor.

It also published guidelines for using RFID at the item level that call for tags to be removed before they reach consumers, according to Katherine Albrecht, founder and director of CASPIAN, as well as co-author of the book "Spychips: How Major Corporations and Government Plan to Track Your Every Move with RFID."

Despite being transparent with its RFID tags, Levi is not being so open with the identification of the U.S. retailer (Beckman confirmed it is not Wal-Mart or Target, two major retailers with RFID mandates for their top suppliers).

Part of the reason Levi may be staying mum on the whereabouts of its RFID program is past experience from fellow clothing manufacturers.

Following a 2003 consumer boycott led by CASPIAN's Albrecht, Benetton backed off its plans to embed RFID chips in its Sisley line of clothing.

"If we knew where [the Levi test store] was, we would alert our membership," said Albrecht, in Nashua, N.H.

Read the full story on eWEEK.com: Levi's New Style: RFID