Author: Yogi Schulz

Earlier this year Wal-Mart and Benetton announced that they would adopt a new generation of electronic sensors called RFID.  These announcements brought a technology that has been maturing for many years squarely into the public eye.

Unfortunately, both companies soon retracted their plans amid negative publicity from privacy groups who raised fears that the Radio Frequency IDentification (RFID) tags would let the retailers identify and track customers.

The fears are exaggerated.  Electronic sensors are coming.  In retailing and many other industries, the ubiquitous bar code is beginning its march into oblivion as it is replaced by more powerful technologies.  The new technologies reduce costs for manufacturers, distributors and retailers while improving product availability and freshness for us as consumers.

What is an RFID Tag?

An RFID tag consists of a tiny microchip, smaller than we’re now seeing on the new generation of charge cards, a short antenna that looks like a thin ribbon and a tiny battery.  These components can be installed on almost any surface or in the wall of any box.  Each RFID tag stores a unique identification, which if Wal-Mart and others have their way, will be the proposed Electronic Product Code.  An RFID data reader uses a low-power radio transmitter/receiver to read data stored in the RFID tag.

How Does RFID Work?

Here’s how an RFID-based process works.  The process begins when an RFID data reader transmits a radio signal to turn on the tag.  The tag sends back its number.  The number is used by the RFID data reader to query a database for detailed data about the item.  The detailed data can, for example, include manufacturer name, lot number, expiration date, number of units in case, unit pricing, destination or routing.  This data is then used to determine where to send the case in a distribution application or what to re-order in a store replenishment application.

Advantages over Bar Codes

While a bar code-based process can do all that too, RFID is faster and more capable.  Bar codes can only be read individually while hundreds of RFID tags can be read simultaneously.  RFID does not require line of sight for a reading.  These differences greatly speed up the process.  With RFID, scanning each box to determine what’s there when loading or unloading a truck, an airplane or a railway car is much faster.

RFID technology helps retailers address their objectives of balancing consumer demand with supply and avoiding out-of-stock situations at a cost-effective price.

Consumer Privacy Fears

The fears surrounding the use of RFID technology that are being fanned by privacy groups revolve around the following questions.

Will retailers and manufacturers be able to monitor products after consumers purchase them?  While this possibility exists theoretically, there is no economic way to conduct such monitoring.  Also, consumers can easily defeat such monitoring by removing the RFID tag or by removing the product from its packaging and throwing out the packaging with the RFID tag.

Can hackers misuse RFID technology?  Hackers seek to do mischief or cause economic damage.  A hacker could use a wireless device to change the value in a consumer’s RFID tags.  But to what end?  This change would not cause any damage or embarrassment to the consumer.

Can criminals misuse RFID technology?  We might imagine a criminal driving down our street using an RFID data reader to “case” the contents of our homes.  This fear is unfounded because the range of RFID tags is less than a meter.  Even with an expensive add-on antenna for the RFID data reader, the highest read range offered is a theoretical 7 meters minus the significant reduction produced by obstructions like walls.

Can RFID technology be exploited for government surveillance?  I can’t conceive of a benefit an intrusive government might derive from knowing what products are being stored within a suspect’s home.  Someone stockpiling illegal or dangerous materials is not likely to leave any RFID tags on them.

For those consumers who remain concerned, I expect that retailers will offer the option to disable the RFID tags at the checkout.


Wal-Mart, Benetton and others will re-start their RFID rollouts because the opportunity to serve us bargain-hunting consumers better is just too compelling.  We can expect that the next rollout will be accompanied by extensive consumer education to allay fears and correct misunderstandings that spring up along anything that’s new and unfamiliar.


What Is RFID

The Association for Automatic Identification and Data Capture Technologies

Wal-mart’s RFID RetreatJuly 09, 2003

Wal-Mart cancels RFID trials apparently due to public backlash. “We never had products with chips in them,” Wal-Mart spokesman Tom Williams said.

RFID is kind of like a wireless barcode, which can be read from a fair distance away. RFIDs can also contain unique serial numbers and have historically been used for tracking purposes.

Now, RFID is so cheap that it can be placed on individual products, and that has a lot of people worried that they will be used to spy on consumers.

Wal-Mart cancels ‘smart shelf’ trialJuly 9, 2003, 4:00 AM PDT

By Alorie Gilbert and Richard Shim, Staff Writers, CNET

Wal-Mart’s RFID Tag RequirementsWal-Mart directs top 100 suppliers to use RFID by January 1, 2005.

The top 100 suppliers of Wal-Mart represent an expansive product line and volume of product (8 billion tags a year). This move by Wal-Mart validates the feasibility and reliability of low-cost RFID tags.

Manhattan’s Associates is moving ahead with their RFID initiative “RFID in a Box” (see details below), which will assist many Wal-Mart suppliers reach their goal.

For more information on this mandate by Wal-Mart, the following articles at:

Wal-Mart Draws a Line in the Sand –

June 11, 2003 – A packed room at Retail Systems 2003/VICS Collaborative Commerce heard Wal-Mart CIO Linda Dillman say that Wal-Mart intends to ask its top 100 suppliers to put tags carrying Electronic Product Codes on pallets and cases by Jan. 1, 2005.

Wal-Mart Backs RFID Technology –,10801,82155,00.html

Wal-Mart Leading RFID Charge –

Wal-Mart’s RFID MandateRadio frequency identification goes mainstream as world’s largest company directs top 100 suppliers to use RFID by January 1, 2005

by Demir Barlas, Line56, Wednesday, June 04, 2003

Wal-Mart’s RFID Endorsement: The Tipping PointWal-Mart has announced that it will require RFID-tagged pallets and cases by January 2005. Large consumer goods manufacturers need an RFID launch team and plan. Retail competitors need to take action beyond an Auto-ID Center sponsorship.,1317,16962,FF.html

Wal-Mart to throw its weight behind RFID

Tag. You’re It!  Radio Frequency Technology Offers a Solution for Increasing Regulation of Worldwide Transportation Industry

Privacy concerns dog initial RFID plansBy Ann Bednarz Network World, 04/28/03

Philips Electronics made a splash last month when it announced clothing retailer Benetton would outfit its garments and shipping containers with wireless-enabled labels containing microchip transmitters that Philips developed.

But the splash turned into a tidal wave of negative publicity as privacy groups raised fears that the transmitter would let the retailer identify and track customers.

One consumer advocacy group called for a boycott of Benetton, saying sensors hidden in the retailer’s clothing could be used to create a global surveillance network.  Another privacy advocacy firm started a campaign aimed at stopping retailers from selling consumer goods containing live tracking devices.

RFID tags: Big Brother in small packagesBy Declan McCullagh, Special to ZDNet 14 January 2003

Could we be constantly tracked through our clothes, shoes or even our cash in the future?,2000048640,20271223,00.htm

SyTagSyTagú is the most current and advanced implementer of low cost passive RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) used for Automatic Identification of assets, products, people, livestock, vehicles etc. SyTagú utilises the patented EcoTagú technology, which provides long read range with low cost RFID transponder tags.

DynasysDynasys is a technical support center for Texas Instruments Radio Frequency Identification Systems

New longer-range RFID tag systemVTT together with Atmel Corporation, Rafsec Oy and Idesco Oy has developed a new RFID tag system in the Palomar project of the EU’s Fifth Framework Programme.

Enables data reading from a distance of four meters and writing at three meters.

If you have a Cue Cat, save it.

Kevin Ashton, executive director of MIT’s Auto-ID Center in Cambridge, Mass.

Science-fiction retailing made realIDG News Service 8/15/03

John Blau, IDG News Service, DŸsseldorf Bureau