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The Defenition
of Insanity

Big Brother Comes
To Wal-Mart

Welcome to the

Seat Belts,
Cigaretts and

S.A.R.S. Simply Another
Ridiculous Scam

Why N.C. National Guardsman Daniel Moody Didn't Get
| His mail








By Mary Starrett
4, 2004

It's been called "the electronic frisk"[1] the radio frequency identification tags that are now going home with shoppers who are completely unaware that they are carting home track able chips with their store purchases.

Privacy advocates like the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation are among those privacy advocates who warn against the use of this type of technology without the consumer's knowledge.

In fact, legislatures in California and Utah have both considered legislation on RFID privacy matters. Even the Federal Trade Commission's soliciting input on the uses of RFID (deadline for written statements is July 9.)

That being said lots of people still don't get it.

Having written on the use of RFID since last summer, updates on the latest assault on our privacy from the likes of Wal-Mart, Proctor and Gamble, Gillette and others garner much appreciative mail from most, but others write who just will not believe that this technology poses a threat or even that it's being used at the consumer level.

I maintain that what is too unbelievable to digest is often spit out in disgust. The bearer of the bad news is shot again and again and people continue on in a fog. Wal-Mart's use of RFID on individual products prompted Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy to suggest federal legislation may be necessary to protect consumers. He decried the retailer for using the technology in a "clandestine" way.[2]

Wal-Mart began a test several weeks ago using live RFID chips in electronics products in several Dallas- area stores. Before that, Proctor and Gamble partnered with Wal-Mart in a sinister scheme whereby Max Factor Lipfinity lipstick was sold with RFID tags inside the packaging. Over a four month period, P&G researchers watched the Wal-Mart shelves in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma from over 700 miles away in Cincinnati. Like smarmy voyeurs they used webcams near the shelves to view consumers buying the lipstick. Then they used the RFID to track the inventory.

Creepy, isn't it?

While Wal-Mart has been upfront about rolling out RFID inventory tracking, at one point, they denied they were doing this. Same thing happened when "smart shelves" were installed at a Brockton, Massachusetts Wal-Mart store last summer. Despite pictures and eyewitness accounts of seeing the shelves, Wal-Mart denied the existence of the shelves they at first acknowledged planning for! So goes the inherent desire of the big corporations to deny the use of a technology they KNOW makes consumers uncomfortable.

For those who still don't get it, the RFID uses small computer chips and antennas placed within plastic or paper labels. The chips can be read by an electronic scanner. The industry would have you believe these are just upgraded, new-and-improved bar codes that will help with inventory control. Here's the diff- Bar codes label an entire category of products. ePC's or RFID chips issue a unique and TRACK ABLE identifier for every single INDIVIDUAL item. While Wal-Mart has mandated that all their major suppliers use RFID within the next 6 months, consumers are being routinely lied to about which items in which stores are currently outfitted with chips already. While privacy groups have asked for a moratorium on using RFID at the consumer level, biggies like Wal-Mart and Proctor and Gamble and Gillette have refused. To make matters worse they don't even notify consumers the tags are in place.

Wal-Mart spokesman Gus Whitcomb says regarding concerns about customers buying individual products with chips "that's all a big hypothetical that we're not planning to do in the first place". Which, is of course, not true. Wal-Mart's own press release touts the field test using RFID in Dallas area stores that began 3 weeks ago.[3]

Being called "paranoid" for even broaching the subject, I have come to realize, those who "get it"�get it. Those who don't, more than likely never will. To understand the implications of the potential abuse of this technology it's only necessary to read the RFID trade journals.

RFID that's already being applied include a hand-washing monitoring system for restaurant workers and a tracking system used byDelta Airlines baggage handlers. Now I like fecal matter -free food when I dine out as much as the next person and I appreciate getting my luggage on time when I travel, but I also understand the chilling effects of abuses of these types of applications. Privacy advocate and Advanced Doctoral Candidate at Harvard University, Katherine Albrecht says of the hand washing compliance use of RFID: "using technology to monitor people is a slippery slope�how long before everyone's every move is wirelessly monitored to ensure compliance with a myriad of rules and regulations�The road to tyranny is paved with good intentions".

Albrecht, who founded and directs C.A.S.P.I.A.N. (Consumers Against Privacy Invasion and Numbering) points out when retail giant Wal-Mart spins the RFID technology they're using as "only a number" we do well to remember that our Social Security Numbers are just that�What began as a way to tie us to our Social Security accounts has become a de facto national I.D. The numbers in and of themselves can do no harm- it's the application that can and has become abusive. Giving government and corporations access to too much information has always been a bad idea. Each and every time we give up info we can rest assured we will come to regret it.

Many readers emailed me to suggest that Wal-Mart's use of RFID technology was the stuff of urban legends. Some even forwarded links to a site called

I typed in RFID and up came several of my past articles on this subject with what amounted to the site's unabashed apologetic for the use of this technology. What should have been a clue to those reading this was the blatant flip-flop quotes by Wal-Mart execs. The website acknowledges RFID use was going on but "not anymore". It's laughable. If this is what passes for urban-legend- busting they have a long way to go! I would take their entries with a grain of salt. Speaking of grains of salt- technology biggie Applied Digital Solutions has been going gang-busters with their Verichip. It's a speck-sized, "miniature, implantable, radio frequency identification device that has the potential to be used in variety of personal�financial and healthcare applications". I'll bet!

While RFID has been around for decades, it's only since Wal-Mart and other retailers like Target, Albertsons and the Department of Defense have become interested in using the technology that privacy issues have come into play. The applications continue to send chills down the spines of those who -again- "get it".

Enterprise Charter School in Buffalo, New York uses RFID to "automate attendance". Next the school is planning on using chips to determine who gets a free lunch and who pays full price.

Those who "get it' won't need any expounding on this latest interest in RFID: A United States Department of Health and Human Services News Release announces:
HHS Takes New Steps To Protect Consumers from Counterfeit Drug Threats". There you go. Anytime the government purports to "protect" us from anything, watch out. Seems the FDA wants to keep your drug supply "secure". They plan on doing this by "securing the movement of the product as it travels through the U.S. drug distribution chain". ..using " modern track and trace technology�by 2007".

I don't have to spell it out, my friends, Big Brother will be watching you, what you buy, ingest, and are prescribed. But heck, no use being paranoid.


1, K.Albrecht
2, Grant Gross, IDG News Service 5/31/04
3, ibid

� 2004 Mary Starrett - All Rights Reserved

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Mary Starrett was on television for 21 years as a news anchor, morning talk show host and medical reporter. For the last 5 years she hosted a radio program. Mary is a frequent guest on radio talk shows. E-Mail [email protected]








"I maintain that what is too unbelievable to digest is often spit out in disgust. The bearer of the bad news is shot again and again and people continue on in a fog. Wal-Mart's use of RFID on individual products prompted Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy to suggest federal legislation may be necessary to protect consumers."