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Wal-Mart turns customers into RFID lab rats

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Have you ever wondered what it's like to buy lipstick while in a petri dish?

Consumers in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma know this experience all too well. They were part of a real-world RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) experiment conducted earlier this year by Wal-Mart and Proctor & Gamble. The two U.S. giants placed hidden RFID tags inside of Max Factor Lipfinity lipstick with little mention of the affair to consumers, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.

A disgruntled P&G employee informed the paper of the study, which is one of the first of its kind in the U.S.

Over a four month period, P&G researchers viewed the Wal-Mart shelves from some 750 miles away in Cincinnati. They used Webcams mounted near the shelves to watch consumers buy the lipstick and then used RFID scanners to track the inventory.

Wal-Mart has been upfront about its plans to roll out a massive RFID inventory tracking system. Although the issue as to whether or not the technology should only be used for back-end purposes as opposed to monitoring consumer goods is quite dicey. Wal-Mart confirmed that it had indeed been keeping an eye on consumers in this case, after first denying the test.

A P&G spokeswoman was more forthcoming.

"She said there was a sign at the Lipfinity display that 'alerted customers that closed-circuit televisions and electronic merchandise security systems are in place in the store,'" the Sun-Times reports.

She added that the system was only used to track lipstick leaving the shelves. Once taken by a consumer, the product was out of range.

Some pundits laugh off the potential Big Brother effect of RFID tags, but many technophiles fear the little tags will be used for a wide range of nefarious purposes.

"On the surface, the Broken Arrow trial may seem harmless. But the truth is that the businesses involved pushed forward with this technology in secret, knowing full well that consumers are overwhelmingly opposed to it. This is why we have called for mandatory labeling of products containing RFID chips," Katherine Albrecht, founder of CASPIAN, a privacy rights group, told the paper.

To date, Wal-Mart and the U.S. Department of Defense have been among the most vocal backers of the technology. Some say their plans could cost suppliers millions.

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