In a news story Friday from the Wall Street Journal the much beloved Wal-Mart is in the first throes of putting RFID chips in your underwear. An explanation is in order before someone goes off the deep end assuming Wal-Mart is going to monitor your butt while you ramble their megastores.
RFID means Radio Frequency IDentification and is a small plastic and metal chip that sits on anything it is attached to, waiting to hear from home. Most RFID chips don’t contain batteries or other power sources: They’re passive devices, not much bigger than a paper match. Some are the size of a grain of rice, but they don’t actually do much more than one thing.
What a RFID chip does do, is detect the presence of a specific frequency of radio broadcast signal, uses that radiated electrical energy as a power source and does the only thing it can do: Burp up the unique number burned into the RFID tag itself as a very low power transmission.
At the same time as the RFID scanner is broadcasting its signal, the scanner is also listening for any numbers that beep back on a slightly different frequency from the RFID chips that are within range. Range is usually less than fifty feet.
Where the magic happens is that number that the passive RFID chip burps back. If it is a unique number you can then look up that individual product (a pair of jeans for example) in an inventory database and see that number belongs to a pair of Wranglers, zip fly, size 36, Men’s, blue, prewashed, shipped to store 5834 on July 12th 2010.
With a little more database work you can also see that the wholesale price was $4, shipping, stocking and overhead added $2.17 and the sale price was $17, for a tidy profit of ten bucks and change. Then the databases in the back can also see that corporately we’re running low on size 36 Mens’ zip fly at that store, so the next shipment of clothing to store 5834 should have another dozen pairs of that size and style and then order them from the factory.
This can all happen in less than one second. It ain’t rocket science and it ain’t new. Passive RFID chips are in your toll both device for the New York State Thruway, or eZee pay transponder, your work ID card and even your drivers’ license in some states, as well as in the newer US passports.
The question now becomes how permanent the RFID chip becomes. Some clothing manufacturer have embedded the RFID chip in the actual clothing, hidden in a seam or pocket trim, as a permanent component of the garment. According to the WSJ story, Benneton did just that a few years ago and caught a face full of consumer backlash.
The problem is that the RFID tags don’t have the smarts to turn themselves off once the product is sold. With nothing more than a handheld antenna and a transceiver, any pud with downloadable instructions can make any RFID chip broadcast back the number burned into it, if he gets in range.
What Wal-Mart wants to do is attach a RFID chip to the sales tag, which is removed at the cash, or by the consumer when they get the jeans home. Fair enough, the tag isn’t woven into the garment itself, so the tag doesn’t follow you around. Wal-Mart is even being somewhat transparent about what it intends to do with the data, essentially inventory management and nothing more.
Other manufacturers? We can only guess what they might consider and how transparent they might be regarding their use of RFID. Would a brand-name clothing company permanently tag your favourite jacket? It isn’t hard to do, physically, as a RFID chip could readily fit in the pull tab for a zipper. Let us assume they’ve done exactly that: Tagged that pretty summer-fall jacket you bought.
You enter the brand-name store and pass through the anti-theft detectors. Unbeknownst to you, also in the anti-theft gate, there is a transmitter for the company RFID chips. Your jacket zipper does what it can only do and pings back the unique number embedded in it. Almost instantaneously that number is searched in the company inventory database and is found to be paired up to your Brand-Name Store Platinum Loyalty card that you used when your bought the jacket five months ago.
Now the store knows you and with a second or two more, knows your purchase history (you bought saucy underwear four months ago, as well as two tops, but have never bought their shoes or pants) over the the two and a half years of being a Platinum Loyalty customer. Could you be greeted by name? Quite possibly.
Could other stores in the Brand-Name chain that sell different stuff, identify you as a potential customer? Sure, why not? All it takes is the sharing of the numbers in the RFID chip: Brand-Name’s housewares stores could identify you by your jacket RFID tag and give you personalized service, even if you go to their most distant store, while on vacation in Buttcrack, Iowa.
With a little truth management, they might even read the other tags in your clothing, to see what you bought from the competition. That bra? Ahh, not from us. Sell her a Brand Name Store bra says the text message sent to a company handheld that the “sales associate” has chained to her hand. Tell her about our shoe sale on now, just for Brand Name Store Platinum Loyalty customers, unadvertised and by invitation only. All the sales monkey has to do is occasionally glance at the “customer assistance” handheld to see the coaching and prompts in real-time. Your wallet, purchased from Brand Name’s affiliate, is now going to be emptied with some pretty slick sales tactics, targeted very precisely, at you, your buying habits and your history.
All of it eminently do-able. No violations of the rules of physics involved, just some good database work and a bit of sharp programming, plus knowing that any RFID chip will burp back a number if you send it the right frequency.