Will Wal-Mart Track You?

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What do the U.S. Department of Defense and Wal-Mart have in common?

The two organizations have become poster children for radio frequency identification (RFID), a technology that will undoubtedly help businesses and other enterprises do a better job of tracking goods, but also makes privacy advocates uneasy. Both organizations are requiring their suppliers to use RFID tags if they want to continue doing business with them.

With RFID, tiny radio transmitters are attached to products. These tags, as they're called, emit radio waves carrying data that's read using special scanners. RFID tags are like high-tech bar codes, only they can hold more data and their signals can be received over a far greater distance.

RFID holds tremendous promise. The Food and Drug Administration is looking into RFID tags for prescription drug packaging to ensure people don't end up getting fake drugs. The Department of Agriculture wants to use RFID to track livestock from birth to the dinner table to avoid breakouts of mad cow disease. And grocery stores envision a day when your shopping cart is so full of "smart" goods that they can alert you to specials in the next aisle based on what you've already picked, then tally your bill without taking anything out of the cart.

Right now, the Department of Defense and Wal-Mart want their suppliers to use RFID tags so they can do a better job of tracking inventory. Wal-Mart toyed with the idea of requiring RFID tags on individual product packaging, but the ensuing furor forced the company to confine the tags to crates, pallets, and other bulk packaging. That's because people aren't sure they want companies to be able to track the individual products they buy.

Of course, if you use a loyalty card at the supermarket or a credit card at the local Gap, businesses already know what you buy. It's no coincidence that the cash register at your grocery store keeps spitting out coupons for a new brand of apple juice when you're always buying Mott's. But RFID tags have the potential to invade personal privacy to a greater extent.

Will Your Underwear Give You Away?

What worries privacy groups is the possibility that RFID tags will continue to transmit information after you've left the store. At a California hearing last year, State Senator Debra Bowden reportedly asked, "How would you like it if, for instance, your underwear was reporting on your whereabouts?"

Is that technologically possible? Yes. Will it happen? Not immediately, if ever. Companies are sensitive to the backlash that RFID might cause, so they're saying all the right things. They've even promised that any tags that go into products would be automatically disabled once the product leaves a store.

But the simple fact is that right now it costs too much to use RFID for every product in every store. Businesses need to pay for the tags themselves--at about a dime per tag--and stores need to build the network infrastructure necessary to monitor those tags. Experts say most companies have not figured out how to cost-justify the use of RFID.

What's more, RFID standards haven't been completely worked out. No company that sells supplies to the Department of Defense and to Wal-Mart is going to want to use two different RFID technologies to do the job in the event those organizations settle on different RFID platforms. So until the industry settles on standards (and it's getting closer), RFID adoption will be slow.

RFID tags are potentially very useful, but they could be abused. Privacy advocates don't necessarily condemn the technology; they just want government and industry to address the potential for abuse before rushing into anything. As long as average people are told when and where RFID tags are used and what information they track, and as long as RFID tags are deactivated when they leave a store, we will have very little to be worried about.

Brad Grimes is a former executive editor for PC World. He lives near Washington, D.C.
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