RFID: Mark Benneton on Privacy Woes

By Mark Roberti

Mauro Benetton, director of marketing for the company that bears his name, admits the flap caught him off guard. In March, a group called CASPIAN (Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering) called for a boycott of the Italian apparel company after learning that it planned to use radio frequency identification tags to track its clothing. CASPIAN feared the tagged clothing would enable Benetton Group to surreptitiously gather information on customers' shopping habits. Mauro Benetton says his company isn't backing off its plans to test RFID. But it will take steps to educate the public and give them the option of removing RFID tags.

Then, in July, press reports suggested that privacy advocates forced Wal-Mart Stores Inc. to back off an in-store "smart-shelf" test (see main story). Wal-Mart refused to comment, but no one can say that the company was caught off guard. In fact, it was Wal-Mart that proposed that the Auto-ID Center, a nonprofit RFID research organization, include a "kill" command in its specifications for a universal electronic product code (EPC), so the RFID tags could be permanently disabled at checkout.

The Auto-ID Center has been researching the privacy issue for three years and recently issued a position paper that establishes three bedrock policies all users of EPC technology should follow:

  • Consumers will always have the right to know when they are in a location where EPC readers are in use, and that the products they are buying contain EPC tags.

  • Consumers will always have the right to have EPC tags in the products they buy permanently deactivated, without cost or penalty.

  • Consumers will always have the right to buy EPC-tagged products without having their personal information electronically linked to the EPC number in the product.

    "The companies we are working with all want to do the right thing," says Kevin Ashton, executive director of the Auto-ID Center. "Our primary recommendation is that if you can assure people that they have those three rights, then you are giving them the right to choose, and privacy concerns pretty much go away."

    Stephen Keating, executive director of the Privacy Foundation, a nonprofit group in Denver, welcomes the center's proposals. But he says the technology raises some complex issues and problems in implementing policies. "When does the decision [to opt out] occur and how do you implement it?" he asks. "Can I say I want some purchases tracked but not others?"

    It will be up to the Uniform Code Council, which is taking over commercialization of the EPC under its AutoID Inc. subsidiary, to turn the Auto-ID Center's principles into a coherent set of guidelines for retailers. Keating believes that educating consumers will be key. Shoppers will need to understand the potential benefits they will receive if they agree to allow retailers to track their purchases. "On the perimeter, you will have privacy advocates and civil libertarians screaming about it," Keating says, "but when it comes to consumer acceptance, it's about the economic value."

  • This article was originally published on 09-15-2003