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Though the abbreviation, for Radio Frequency Identification, has been known in the specialist literature since at least 1995, it has risen to much wider public notice in recent months. RFID refers to tiny passive tags, as small as a grain of sand. When triggered by a radio query, they send back a unique identification number.

Retailers love the idea, especially if manufacture in bulk brings the price of each tag down to a few pennies. They’re just what’s needed to run an automated stock control system and reduce theft. They will make checkout much easier, too: no more painstaking swiping of bar codes but just one pass across a sensor with your purchases. The potential is very great — it has been suggested, for example, that banknotes should have chips embedded as a precaution against fraud. The US military are already using it to monitor shipments of supplies and personnel in Iraq.

The controversy arises from potential problems of privacy if the tags are left active once you leave the store. Imagine buying an item of clothing that contains an RFID tag. Every time you wear it, the tag could be triggered by a sensor, so recording where you go. A trial in a Tesco store in Cambridge this year photographed anyone removing a packet of a frequently stolen brand of Gillette blades from the shelf, and again when it was presented at the cash desk. Though it was denied this was a security measure, customers got the trial stopped.

We shall be hearing much more about such concerns. For the moment, some retailers, such as Wal-Mart, have backed away from using the technology in stores, mainly, they say, because it isn’t yet robust enough for the real world.

Soon after this backlash, the RFID industry started talking about “kill switches” that would, if the customer wanted, deactivate tags at the checkout stage. This, along with assurances that all RFID-tagged goods will be marked as such, has become the main means to quell privacy fears.

Guardian, 19 July 2003

Starting with RFID in the supply chain instead of at the item level might also give the industry time to deal with consumers’ privacy concerns. The industry needs to assure customers that RFID tags on items can’t be used to collect information on products outside the store.

InformationWeek, 16 June 2003

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 20 Sep. 2003

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
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Last modified: 20 September 2003.