- Wal-Mart Tries New PR Spin to Accompany Item-level RFID
Tagging "Selling the technology with partial truths is unethical,"
- Despite widespread consumer opposition, Wal-Mart began
item-level RFID (radio frequency identification) tagging of consumer goods
last week as part of a trial in Texas. In an apparent effort to minimize
the backlash to its use of RFID tags, Wal-Mart has also begun a public
relations campaign to promote the technology that some are calling unethical.
- Shoppers at seven Dallas-Ft. Worth area Wal-Mart stores
can walk into the consumer electronics department and find Hewlett-Packard
products for sale with live RFID tags attached. Wal-Mart's public statements
appear to leave open the possibility that other goods could be tagged with
RFID as well.
- The giant retailer's decision to tag individual items
on the store floor violates a call for a moratorium on such tagging issued
last November by over 40 of the world's most respected privacy and civil
liberties organizations. The move has sparked sharp criticism by the privacy
- "Wal-Mart is blatantly ignoring the research and
recommendations of dozens of privacy experts," says Katherine Albrecht,
Founder and Director of CASPIAN (Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy
Invasion and Numbering). "When the world's largest retailer adopts
a technology with chilling societal implications, and does so irresponsibly,
we should all be deeply concerned."
- In addition to violating the call for a moratorium on
RFID-tagged items in stores, Wal-Mart has begun a consumer education campaign
that CASPIAN is calling unethical.
- "Read the FAQs at the Wal-Mart corporate web site
and you'll find plenty of half truths," Albrecht says. "They
call it consumer education, but the omissions and spin make it feel more
like a calculated disinformation campaign."
- Albrecht provides the example of Wal-Mart's statement
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. 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 today routinely
link shoppers' identity information from credit, ATM and "loyalty"
cards with product bar code numbers to record individuals' purchases over
time. "If nothing is done to stop it, the same will happen with the
unique RFID numbers on products. This means that if retailers can read
an RFID tag on a product they previously sold you, they can identify you
as you walk in the door and even pinpoint your location in their store
as you shop," she said.
- Albrecht also criticizes Wal-Mart for failing to tell
consumers of the retailer's long-term goals for RFID. "The industry
plan is to put an RFID tag on every product on Earth to identify and locate
them at any time, anywhere. Wal-Mart is taking the first steps to creating
a society where everything could be surveilled at all times. A shopper
would hardly learn this by reading their website."
- With potentially billions of dollars riding on RFID,
global corporations are eager to see it deployed. However, consumer acceptance
has proved to be an obstacle.
- Procter & Gamble's own research suggests that 78
percent of consumers surveyed reacted negatively to the technology on privacy
grounds and did not find industry reassurances compelling. Another industry
study, published in January 2003, found similar misgivings among focus
groups of consumers in the U.S., Germany, France, Japan and the UK.
- The most publicized trial of item-level RFID tagging
to date, Metro-AG's "Future Store" in Rheinberg, Germany, met
with massive consumer outcry earlier this year, culminating in a protest
outside the store.
- "Wal-Mart may soon be facing a similar backlash,"
- CASPIAN (Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion
and Numbering) is a grass-roots consumer group fighting retail surveillance
schemes since 1999, and item-level RFID tagging since 2002. With members
in all 50 U.S. states and over 30 nations across the globe, CASPIAN seeks
to educate consumers about marketing strategies that invade their privacy
and to encourage privacy-conscious shopping habits across the retail spectrum.
- CASPIAN is guided by free market principles. Rather than
look to lawmakers for solutions to the consumer privacy problem, we call
on consumers to reject privacy-invading practices so that they fail in
- For more information, see http://www.spychips.com and