The following is one of two different perspectives regarding today’s Wall Street Journal article indicating that Wal-Mart expects to track certain clothing through the use of RFID enabled smart tags. This commentary is in the context of the consumer perspective.

As I read the Wall Street Journal article Wal-Mart Radio Tags To Track Clothing, I began feeling that there will be nothing left private in my life.  I happen to agree with Katherine Albrecht, author of Spychips, when she says, “There are two things you really don’t want to [RFID] tag, clothing and identity documents…” I am not so quick to dismiss these concerns as “breathless conjecture”. Let’s check out what we already have in place.

Most of us carry at least one store card which tracks what and how much we purchase at our local supermarket, shoe store, drug store, clothing store or gas station.  We all want a bargain, so we easily give away our information to get the discount, special offerings, or members-only sales.  We tell ourselves that we control to whom and what we tell our chosen companies about ourselves, but truly, that is not the case.  They can discern a great deal about our personal and collective purchasing and lifestyle habits from tracking those seemingly harmless little cards or key chain dangles.  We are a supply chain executive’s and marketer’s dream customer.  For very little investment and work, they know oodles about what and how much they should order and stock and what does and doesn’t sell.

Now let’s introduce an RFID chip.  Let’s see…who doesn’t use underwear or wear jeans?  If this works and really does lower costs and reduce theft for Wal-Mart, and by the way, reduce the need for employees and all associated benefits costs, since there will be less need for sales associates, inventory checkers, and warehouse workers, then it will be used for all products and companies.  Think of it this way, if Wrangler and other suppliers have to invest in the new equipment for Wal-Mart, it’s a short leap for other retailers to initiate the sensors.

I don’t necessarily worry about “some unscrupulous marketer or criminal being able to drive by [our] homes and scan our garbage”, as I do about the web of potential and ultimately most probable linkages among all our consumer and identity cards.  It matters not whether the sensor tag is removable.   What matters is that individual items will be tagged with individual sensors.

We already have the cards and they will, sooner or later, be replaced with new ones that have RFID sensors.  I envision that, in time, the sensors will be added to the cards, probably without too much of a fuss, as we don’t pay much attention to replacement cards or their informational inserts. New types of IDs are already beginning to be used for special identity documents and drivers’ licenses.  We’re sold on this idea of personal convenience and extra safety.

We are also a society that wants safety and cost containment measures to assist our quality of life and purchasing power.  We think it’s a wonderful idea to fingerprint our children, give them picture IDs with bar codes and have them carry these identifiers with them all day.  They use them for bus boarding, in lunch lines, and corridor passes. Safety first, anyone who doesn’t belong doesn’t get a nifty badge; they get a visitor’s pass! Our special work and school badges keep us safe.  They also help insure that public and private funds are being used appropriately.  After all, we can’t afford to waste money on cheaters who shouldn’t be getting what it is they shouldn’t be getting nor doing what they shouldn’t be doing at the expense of the taxpayer or the company shareholders.

In the end, our RFID chipped cards and IDs will be linked to our RFID purchased goods chips which will be linked to RFID surveillance cameras.  Imagine what information we will share with anyone who wants to know.   Supply chain executives will be able to track inventory and replenish stores on a timely basis and marketers will be hailed as being ‘best of breed’ for being able to read the market so well that companies can control costs, improve working capital, and raise shareholder profits.

From birth to death, and possibly beyond, every aspect of our lives will be an open book.  Can you say “Big Brother is watching”?  I don’t think it can or will be short circuited (pardon the pun), but…I do shudder at the future of an open world from which we cannot hide.

Marie Ferrari