Saturday, July 24, 2010

Store Wars

As you may have heard, Wal-Mart is going full-speed-ahead with their plan to implement a vast RFID network in its U.S. stores. Starting next month, the radio-controlled electronic tags will be attached to Wal-Mart's blue jeans and underwear, and their goal is to have them on every other product in the store. These electronic tags, which can be capable of receiving and transmitting data as well as communicating with other tags and devices, stay "live" even after you walk out of the store with them, and privacy watchdogs are concerned.

According to the Wall Street Journal:

Starting next month, the retailer will place removable "smart tags" on individual garments that can be read by a hand-held scanner. Wal-Mart workers will be able to quickly learn, for instance, which size of Wrangler jeans is missing, with the aim of ensuring shelves are optimally stocked and inventory tightly watched.

"This ability to wave the wand and have a sense of all the products that are on the floor or in the back room in seconds is something that we feel can really transform our business," said Raul Vazquez, the executive in charge of Wal-Mart stores in the western U.S.

While the tags can be removed from clothing and packages, they can't be turned off, and they are trackable. Some privacy advocates hypothesize that unscrupulous marketers or criminals will be able to drive by consumers' homes and scan their garbage to discover what they have recently bought.

They also worry that retailers will be able to scan customers who carry new types of personal ID cards as they walk through a store, without their knowledge. Several states, including Washington and New York, have begun issuing enhanced driver's licenses that contain radio- frequency tags with unique ID numbers, to make border crossings easier for frequent travelers. Some privacy advocates contend that retailers could theoretically scan people with such licenses as they make purchases, combine the info with their credit card data, and then know the person's identity the next time they stepped into the store.

I'll be curious to see how much creative resistance occurs to this Orwellian idea. There are many ways that everything could go totally wrong for Wal-Mart by implementing this RFID plan, due to inherent flaws in the system. Since RFID tags operate by radio waves, they're susceptible to any external radio interference. Just think on that for awhile, monkeywrenchers. And if one were to save large quantities of the tags off their purchases, then sneak them back into the store and conceal them in various places (pockets of clothing, hard to reach places under and behind displays, etc.) then it could seriously screw up Wal-Mart's inventory. And that would just be a downright tragedy. Imagine the chaos if a store became filled with hidden tags still broadcasting a nonexistent product, and even after the manager determines the readings are false, still goes nuts tearing the store apart trying to find all the secretly placed rogue tags.

As RFID tags get smaller and smaller (they've already perfected microscopic RFID "smart dust"), the potential for mischief will be staggering - both on the part of retailers and consumers, taking the eternal battle between buyers and sellers to the level of actual high-tech espionage and war.

I don't actually recommend any of you people really go out and do anything like that, of course. I'm just speculatin' 'bout a hypothesis, that's all. Strictly for the sake of argument. An empirical inquiry, in the name of science and all its wonders.

There's no reason - absolutely no reason - Wal-Mart couldn't have implemented an RFID system that turns the tag off and permanently disables it at the point of checkout. Such systems already exist, and Wal-Mart has been studying on RFID for years now. No, the only reason you would want to keep the tags live and transmitting even after the customer gets in their car and goes home would be if you had something nefarious in mind. Just what that is, I don't know for certain right now. But what happens in the darkness will surely see the light of day.

(Photo above: on the left, Hitachi's super-tiny RFID microchips, shown next to a human hair. On the right is their previous advancement, the Mu-Chip, which was 64 times larger - not microscopic, but still only the size of a grain of salt.)


  1. Fortunately, the Mouse Army (Stephenson, The Diamond Age) is doing a remarkable job of keeping ahead of the mouse-traps. A number of technologies are already available to preclude all manner of hackers from ganking-off with what RF data you may wind up broadcasting:

    Shielding now, jamming soon, but it has been alleged (and seems plausible) that a few seconds in the microwave will disable any chip:

    Of course, RF-chips have been included mandatorily in US Passports since 2006. Next step, your driver's license ("REAL ID") and license plates.

  2. In Brazil, but creepy nonetheless:

    [OMO Detergent's newest marketing campaign imbeds GPS devices in a random 50 boxes--and sends teams out to track down the 'winners' in their homes]