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Wal-Mart, other stores pursue embedded microchips in products

The Ellis County Press

WAXAHACHIE - Black and white barcodes are being systematically replaced in Wal-Mart and other stores by embedded microchips, commonly referred to as Radio Frequency Identification tags.

The new technology, concocted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1999, has not been implemented on

all products in every store - but that could soon change as more grocers, hardware stores and distribution centers are taking an interest in the cost-saving jump.

Radio frequency identification tags are, in essence, miniaturized computers - and can enable products to be identified and tracked anywhere at anytime.

Upon a purchase, for example, at the Wal-Mart on Highway 77 in Waxahachie, the cashier deactivates the RFID tag.

RFID features a numbering system called an electronic product code, which can provide a specific identification for any item.

Unlike the bar code, however, the code assigns a specific number to each specific product, thereby allowing computers to track selected products, like toothpaste or a ball point pen.

Once assigned, the number is transmitted through radio waves, or through the RFID tag in or on each product. The tags, according to InternetWeek.com's Margie Semilof, are 'somewhere between the size of a grain of sand and a speck of dust' and cost nearly a penny to make.

The tags will also be embedded directly into food packaging, clothes or prescription drugs. The technology has even given rise to what Proctor and Gamble officials have unveiled: refrigerators reporting their contents to the supermarket for re-ordering and interactive televisions selecting commercials based on the contents of a home's refrigerator.

According to the MIT Auto-ID Center, a conglomerate of grocery and department store executives are pushing this latest wave of new technology. Wal-Mart and other stores have hailed the new system as a deterrent to stolen merchandise.

However, the rising popularity of the RFIDs has consumer groups and 'Big Brother' opponents worried.

'If consumers fail to oppose these practices now, our long-term prospects may look like something from a dystopian science fiction novel,' said Katherine Albrecht, Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering director.

'Consumers might not even know they're being surveilled since tiny RFID chips can be embedded in plastic, sewn into the seams of garments, or otherwise hidden.'

CASPIAN recently found it could access documents on the Audio-ID Center website by typing the word 'confidential' into the website's search tool, according to published news reports.

The Audio-ID Center's membership includes the largest global retailers, consumer-packaged goods makers and agencies such as the U.S. Department of Defense and U.S. Postal Service.

Documents returned from the group's search included lists of the Audio-ID Center's board of directors, among them executives from Coca-Cola and Kodak.

Strategies for addressing public fears of RFID were also found.

'How can we trust these people with securing sensitive consumer information if they can't even secure their own web site?' Albrecht asked.

The Audio-ID Center said they were unaware of the documents' availability.

Marketing and technology experts working for the nation's largest supermarket chains wanted something better - and cheaper - than the preferred savings cards available at many grocery stores.

'While these [cards] did a better job of linking consumers and their purchases, loyalty cards were severely limited,' said John Stermer, vice president of eBusiness Market Development at ACNielsen. 'Where once we collected purchase information, now we can correlate multiple points of consumer product purchase with consumption specifics such as the flow, when and who of product use.'

And with Wal-Mart the most prominent, other stores like Target and Home Depot have started the process of replacing barcodes.

'Anyone with the right ‘code' or ‘password' for their purchase has the ability to reactivate the chip and know its location, thus can be used as a tracking device,' said RFID researcher and John Birch Society member Joe Molero.

Currently, there are no federal government regulations on the RFID technology, and that, Molero said, could be of use to the Department of Homeland Security, the nation's new anti-terrorism agency.

'Anyone with the education knows what the DHS is capable of doing,' he said. 'This is something people need to be made aware of.'

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