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Wal-Mart attracts more RFID flak

Consumer group up in arms over privacy

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Grass-roots consumer group Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering (CASPIAN), which is fighting retail surveillance schemes, says that Wal-Mart's decision to tag individual items on its store floor using radio frequency identification or RFID violates a call for a moratorium issued last November by 40 privacy and civil liberties organisations.

Wal-Mart began item-level RFID tagging of consumer goods last week as part of a trial in Texas. Shoppers at seven Dallas-Fort Worth area Wal-Mart stores can walk into the consumer electronics department and find Hewlett-Packard products for sale with RFID tags attached.

Wal-Mart says that RFID tags in its stores are harmless since they contain nothing more than identification numbers. "While technically that's true, Wal-Mart fails to explain what it means for items to carry remote-readable unique ID numbers," says Katherine Albrecht, founder and director of CASPIAN. "It's like saying someone's social security number is 'only' a number, so sharing it with perfect strangers should be of no concern."

Albrecht explains that many major retailers routinely link shoppers' identity information from credit, ATM and "loyalty" cards with product bar code numbers to record individuals' purchases over time. The same will happen with RFID numbers on products, she claims. This means that if retailers can read an RFID tag on a product they previously sold, they can immediately identify the customer as he or she enters the store.

"Wal-Mart is blatantly ignoring the research and recommendations of dozens of privacy experts," says Albrecht. "When the world's largest retailer adopts a technology with chilling societal implications, and does so irresponsibly, we should all be deeply concerned."

The most publicised trial of item-level RFID tagging to date, Metro-AG's "Future Store" in Rheinberg, Germany, met with some public outcry earlier this year, culminating in a small protest outside the store. So far consumer revolt against RFID remains marginal. ®

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