Critics say the technology reeks of Big Brother. Supporters insist that there is no stopping it.
At a conference here this week, officials from Wal-Mart to the Defense Department said Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags hold the promise of eliminating lost luggage, guaranteeing deliveries, wiping out drudge work, lowering labor costs and increasing efficiency.
The tags work by using tiny computer chips the size of a grain of sand attached to small antennas. When exposed to specific radio waves given off by a transmitter, the chips respond with a unique signal identifying themselves.
Delta Airlines, for example, announced in July that it would spend $25 million over the next two years to roll out an RFID baggage-handling system at every U.S. airport it serves. Earlier this year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration urged the pharmaceutical industry to adopt the technology to help battle an increase in counterfeiting cases.
“Not only does it ID the kind of thing it is, but it identifies that unique thing anywhere it is in the world,” said Mike Meranda, president of EPC Global US, which sponsored the conference.
Ian Robertson, director of the RFID program at Hewlett Packard, said he envisioned the tags eventually being used in conjunction with timers, thermometers for items that are temperature sensitive, and even accelerometers for fragile items to determine if a package has been dropped.
For example, it could be determined who was handling the package when it got too hot or too cold, or when it was dropped “and who’s going to pay for it.”
Simon Langford, manager of RFID strategy for Wal-Mart, said the tags can help employees find products in the storeroom quicker and “spend more time on the floor interacting with the customer, not in the backroom.”
Simon Ellis, a supply chain futurist for Unilever, said RFID tags can help Unilever save money by “making sure our product is always on the shelf,” and by reducing labor costs, among other things.
What is not completely clear is “at what level of tagging do you start to see those benefits? Do you have to tag everything?”
The potential for tracking more than just products has prompted the formation of groups such as CASPIAN, Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering.
RFID devices can be read from 20 to 30 feet away, and the antennas, first made from copper, can now be printed with conductive ink, making it difficult for consumers to know if products they buy contain RFID transmitters, the group argues. The group has proposed legislation that would require the complete disclosure of products containing RFID devices.
While some have concerns about the tags being used to track more than just products, Ed Coyle, head of the Department of Defense’s Logistics Automatic Information Technology office, said at the conference that the key to security, or privacy concerns, is limiting the amount of information on the tags, which also makes the system speedier.
“Keep most information in secure systems and keep the tag as simple as it can be,” Mr. Coyle said. “If you keep it small and keep it encoded, the risk of someone getting business intelligence is reduced.”