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Face-off: Debating RFID

When it comes to radio frequency identification (RFID), one of our editors says "ignorance" could impede the technology; another argues that the technology could pose a challenge to businesses harboring mountains of data generated by RFID and end up in an expensive mess.

Face-off When it comes to radio frequency identification (RFID), one of our editors says "ignorance" could impede the technology. After all, she argues, letting a company know your latest purchases when you walk in their store isn't harmful and may translate into a better shopping experience. Still, the use of the technology could pose a challenge to businesses harboring mountains of data generated by RFID and end up in an expensive mess. Which argument do you believe? After reading both cases, be sure to use our SoundOff! feature to make your opinions known.

Don't let ignorance block RFID

By Susan Fogarty, Editor

Forget what you've heard about radio frequency identification (RFID), because it probably isn't true. Depending on whom you ask (or what you read), this burgeoning technology is either a threat on the level of the Invasion of the Body Snatchers or the best thing since the invention of the Internet. The truth, as usual, is somewhere in between: RFID is an extremely useful technology that is neither sinister nor glamorous.

RFID tags are tiny microchips that transmit information to a nearby scanner. Museums are using RFID tags to guard and track artwork, pet owners can have their pets tagged to identify them in case of loss, and earlier this month the Academy Awards tagged each attendee to prevent security breaches. If you have a car with keyless entry, an ExxonMobil SpeedPass or an E-ZPass tollbooth sticker, then you're already using RFID to make your life easier.

The hubbub over RFID is in the retail supply chain. Wal-Mart, Target and the Department of Defense are accelerating the adoption of RFID by mandating that their suppliers use the technology to identify their products. And many other retailers are hot on their heels. Spending on RFID for tracking retail products will grow from $91 million last year to $1.3 billion by 2008, according to IDC.

That big number has caught the attention of the media and Wal-Mart shoppers everywhere. Conspiracy theorists are putting on their tin foil hats and denouncing the invasion of privacy. They envision that you will walk down the street and hundreds of little scanners will communicate all the intimate details about your life to your supermarket, department store, the federal government, the public library -- you name it. Rabid marketing people will then descend upon your home, threatening to reveal every embarrassing moment of your life unless you buy a lifetime supply of their products.

I exaggerate, but this type of scenario is ridiculous. Right now, most retailers are tagging products by the pallet or case to identify them in the supply chain. In the future, individual products will probably be tagged, but new legislation will likely demand that the tags be removed when you purchase the item.

In addition, scanning is not as easy as tag opponents portray it. Tags and scanners need to be compatible. A scanner erected by Wal-Mart will not be able to decrypt information on products sold by Target and other retailers. Because scanners are expensive and will be limited, you would need to enter a store to be scanned. There would be no chance of companies spying on your home or scanning your person while you walk down the street. Even if a mobile scanner were developed, RFID signals can only be read from a few feet away and are subject to interference.

So, even assuming all of your clothing and personal items have live tags, the worst-case scenario is that when you walk into Wal-Mart, the store will know that the Fruit of the Loom T-shirt you are wearing and the Snickers candy bar in your purse were purchased at one of their stores. There may be a kiosk that prints out a list of similar undergarments and calorie-laden snacks that are currently on sale. It's just like having a cookie on your computer that presents you with recommended reading when you surf at It doesn't sound quite so evil when you think about it, does it?

In the spirit of the information age, we cannot let anxiety and lack of knowledge about RFID sabotage its usefulness.
Susan Fogarty,

As with any technology, responsibility is necessary to avoid abuse. Laws about informing customers and removing tags at checkout are already in the works in California. But all the brouhaha may turn out to be overkill, because it is likely that individuals will be able to un-tag themselves. Tag manufacturers are working on embedding the chip in a sticker that consumers can peel off or including a kill switch that will allow individuals to disable the tags. And for the most paranoid consumers, RSA Security last month demonstrated its Tag Blocker, a chip that prevents all RFID tags in its vicinity from transmitting. In lieu of the foil hat, wearers can attach the chip to a more stylish watch, key chain or wallet.

Coupled with these safeguards, RFID promises to benefit consumers without impinging on their freedom. Tighter inventory control will reduce costs of shortages, overstocks and thefts and will eventually trickle down to the product price tag. In addition, the ability to track products will improve food and drug safety in cases like drug recalls or tracking beef infected with mad cow disease.

For those of us in the IT sector, RFID will have even more crucial benefits. RFID implementations have the potential to revitalize IT shops and offer new jobs to those who anticipate the technology and learn about it. IDC projects that by 2007, businesses will be shelling out $270 million for RFID systems integration. In addition, saving and managing all the resulting data may keep storage and database administrators employed for years to come.

Instead of projecting unfounded and silly fears onto RFID, we should view it for what it really is: an opportunity in a field where opportunities are coming fewer are farther between. In the spirit of the information age, we cannot let anxiety and lack of knowledge about RFID sabotage its usefulness.


RFID to fuel information overload

By Jim Connolly, Executive Editor

It may turn out that RFID is the greatest thing since sliced bread, but let's not get carried away. We don't need an RFID tag on that loaf of bread. "Hello, I'm out of the oven." "Hello, I'm in the truck." "Hello, someone bought me." "Hello, I'm feeling kind of stale."

RFID tags hold a boatload of promise. They can be great for telling manufacturers, shippers and retailers where pallet loads or cases of products and parts are hiding in the supply chain. Stick them on big ticket items such as TVs or watches, and you have a valuable new link in the security chain.

There is a public health benefit if an RFID tag can shout out when a bottle of medicine passes its expiration date. However, force Gillette or Schick to stick a tag on every razor blade pack and deodorant stick and you're simply wasting money and clogging the pipeline with useless data.

Keep RFID in the back room.

I'm not one of those people who worry that RFID will help Big Brother Wal-Mart track my every move, following that super pack of paper towels right to my front door. That thought process can be filed under "P" for paranoia.

My concern is that American businesses will embark on launching new, multi-million-dollar systems that swamp us in minutiae.
Jim Connolly,

My concern is that American business will embark on launching new, multi-million-dollar systems that swamp us in minutiae. The sad fact is that most of the data that businesses hope RFID will capture at the consumer end of the chain is already there for the grabbing. We don't need more data for purposes such as targeted marketing and store shelf inventory, we need better use of the data that we already have, which translates into information.

This June will mark the 30th anniversary of commercial use of bar codes for Uniform Price Code (UPC). (Trivia time: The first scanned item was a 10-pack of Wrigley's gum at a supermarket in Ohio). In the ensuing decades, we've all grown accustomed to seeing those little symbols on whatever we buy.

For a business, barcodes offer a wealth of information about how and when consumers spend their money. Yet, in too many cases, poor implementation of front-end systems results in bad data entry. In other cases, even good data is underused or abused because of shoddily designed analysis tools or that greatest pitfall for any system, the human user.

Businesses are mucking through with customer relationship management systems that don't provide payback. Even the most bullish research will say that only about half of CRM projects have been successful. They build data warehouses and business intelligence applications that provide good information for one department but are inaccessible by others. Or they collect disks full of data that isn't used.

Having RFID tags chirping more data onto those disks won't solve core business problems. Step one is to make better use of the data that we have today. Step two is to envision and build out the applications of tomorrow. The bottom line is that we have to build the right -- and smart -- infrastructure. Only then should business make the heavy investment in consumer-side RFID technology.


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