The Perception Question

By Mark Roberti

It doesn't matter how you plan to use RFID tags; what matters is how people think you may use them.


May 26, 2003 – When it was revealed in mid-March that Benetton planned to put RFID tags on its Sisley line of clothes, the last thing the Italian retailer expected was to have a public relations nightmare on its hands. The company wanted only to track goods from its manufacturing facilities to its stores to improve its supply chain efficiency. Benetton ran into problems because when the media asked questions about how the tags would be used, it didn’t have definitive answers and couldn’t say how the tags would benefit its customers.

Most companies don’t have closed loop supply chains like Benetton and are not thinking about putting RFID tags in consumer items for several years. But that, unfortunately, is irrelevant. Bad press can come at any time and for reasons that have nothing to do with how you are using RFID tags. It’s often been reported that The Gillette Company has ordered 500 million RFID tags to track razors in stores, when if fact it’s using them to track palettes and case. As a result, a handful of people have written to RFID Journal to say they won’t buy Gillette products any more.

David Diamond of Catalina Marketing, a company that runs loyalty programs for supermarkets, points out that right now companies don’t know how they will use RFID tags. “Some privacy advocates are looking to paint nightmare scenarios,” he says. “And when a technology is so new and there is so much uncertainty in the marketplace, it makes it harder for companies to say definitively they won’t do this or that.”

In this week’s feature, Creating an RFID Privacy Plan, we help companies work through some of the privacy issues. It may seem too early to think about this, but privacy policies will have an impact on what systems you need. For instance, not all tags have a kill switch or allow you to store encrypted data. And even if you are starting a pilot in a factory or tracking reusable containers in a distribution center, you never know how your project will be portrayed in the press or on Internet bulletin boards. It’s important to have thought through the issues, so that you have answers when the media comes calling.

In Chicago on June 13, a panel of experts will discuss privacy at RFID Journal Live!. The session is called “Marketer’s Dream or Consumer’s Nightmare?” And next week, our featured story will look at what companies need to do to safeguard their own privacy and the integrity of their products. The issues are not as simple as you might think.

We believe this is a critical issue that needs to be dealt with now. Both the RFID industry and end users need to be more effective in communicating the consumer benefits of RFID and the broad measures that will be adopted to protect consumer privacy. The Auto-ID Center has reached out to more than 35 experts from around the world, run focus groups in 5 countries and created a Policy Advisory Council to provide feedback on privacy issues. It should have the first version of its privacy recommendations for EPC technology ready by its symposium in September.

The center deserves to be commended for these efforts. Other groups are also stepping up to play a leadership role. AIM has asked Bill Allen of Texas Instruments to head up a group to formulate a response to the privacy issue. And the newly formed AutoID Inc., a joint venture created by the UCC and EAN to promote EPC technology (see UCC Ready To Commercialize EPC), has revealed that it will continue to support the center’s advisory council.

This is all good news. What we needed now is for these groups — and individual companies — to begin educating the public about the technology and about how the technology will and won’t be used. It’s not necessary, at this early stage, to have a detailed policy, but rather to communicate consistently that RFID will not be used to track individuals, that consumers will be informed when products have RFID tags and that they will be given options. A clear and consistent message will go along way toward taking the brush out of the hands of those who want to paint nightmare scenarios.

Mark Roberti is the Editor of RFID Journal. If you would like to comment on this article, send e-mail to