SPYCHIPPED LEVI'S BRAND JEANS HIT THE U.S.
By Liz McIntyre & Katherine Albrecht
It may be time to ditch your Dockers and lay off the Levi's, say privacy activists Katherine Albrecht and Liz McIntyre. New information confirms that Levi Strauss & Co. is violating a call for a moratorium on item-level RFID by spychipping its clothing. What's more, the company is refusing to disclose the location of its U.S. test.
Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) is a controversial technology that uses tiny microchips to track items from a distance. These RFID microchips have earned the nickname "spychips" because each contains a unique identification number, like a Social Security number for things, that can be read silently and invisibly by radio waves. Over 40 of the world's leading privacy and civil liberties organizations have called for a moratorium on chipping individual consumer items because the technology can be used to track people without their knowledge or consent.
Jeffrey Beckman, Director of Worldwide and U.S. Communications for Levi Strauss, confirmed his company's chipping program in an email exhange with McIntyre, saying "a retail customer is testing RFID at one location [in the U.S.]...on a few of our larger-volume core men's Levi's jeans styles." However, he refused to name the location.
"Out of respect for our customer's wishes, we are not going to discuss any specifics about their test," he said. Beckman also confirmed the company is tagging Levi Strauss clothing products, including Dockers brand pants, at two of its franchise locations in Mexico.
McIntyre was tipped off to the activity by a mention in an industry publication. The article indicated Levi Strauss was looking for additional RFID "test partners."
Albrecht believes the companies are keeping mum about the U.S. test location in order to prevent a consumer backlash. Clothing retailer Benetton was hit hard by a consumer boycott led by Albrecht in 2003 when the company announced plans to embed RFID tags in its Sisley line of women's clothing. The resulting consumer outcry forced the company to retreat from its plans and disclaim its intentions.
Levi Strauss can little afford similar problems with consumers. It is one of the world's largest brand-name apparel marketers with a presence in more than 110 countries, but has suffered through several years of declining sales as younger consumers gravitate to new brands. The company has also been hurt by Wal-Mart's decision to cut back on inventory in a bid to shore up its own declining sales.
While Levi Strauss reports that its current RFID trials use external RFID "hang tags" that can be clipped from the clothes and the focus is on inventory management, not customer tracking, the company isn't guaranteeing how it will use RFID in the future.
"Companies like Levi Strauss are painting their RFID trials as innocuous," observes Albrecht. "But this technology is extraordinarily dangerous. There is a reason why we have asked companies not to spychip clothing. Few things are more intimately connected with an individual than the clothes they wear."
"Once clothing manufacturers begin applying RFID to hang tags, the floodgates will open and we'll soon find these things sewn into the hem of our jeans," Albrecht adds. "The problem with RFID is that it is tracking technology, plain and simple."
Albrecht and McIntyre point out that tracking people through the things they wear and carry is more than mere speculation. In their book "Spychips: How Major Corporations and Government Plan to Track Your Every Move with RFID," they reveal sworn patent documents that describe ways to link the unique serial numbers on RFID-tagged items with the people who purchase them.
One of the most graphic examples is IBM's "Identification and Tracking of Persons Using RFID-Tagged Items." In that patent application, IBM inventors suggest tracking consumers for marketing and advertising purposes. ["Spychips: How Major Corporations and Government Plan to Track your Every Move with RFID"]
"That's enough to steam most consumers," says McIntyre. "But IBM's proposal that the government track people through RFID tags on the things they wear and carry should send a cold chill down our spines."
IBM inventors detail how the government could use RFID tags to track people in public places like shopping malls, museums, libraries, sports arenas, elevators, and even restrooms.
"Make no mistake," McIntyre adds. "Today's RFID inventory tags could evolve into embedded homing beacons. Unchecked, this technology could become a Big Brother bonanza and a civil liberties nightmare."
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Liz McIntyre is a consumer privacy expert and author of Spychips: How Major Corporations and Government Plan to Track your Every Move with RFID. In this explosive book, McIntyre and co-author Katherine Albrecht reveal how organizations like Procter & Gamble, Gillette, Wal-Mart, and even the U.S. Postal Service plan to use tiny computer chips smaller than a grain of sand to track everyday objects-and even people-keeping tabs on everything you own and everywhere you go.
Katherine Albrecht is a privacy advocate and co-author of Spychips: How Major Corporations and Government Plan to Track your Every Move with RFID. Albrecht has testified on RFID technology before the Federal Trade Commission, the California state legislature, the European Commission, and the Federal Reserve Bank, and she has given over a thousand television, radio and print interviews to news outlets all over the world. Her efforts have been featured on CNN, NPR, the CBS Evening News, Business Week, and the London Times, to name just a few.
E-Mail: [email protected]
Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) is a controversial technology that uses tiny microchips to track items from a distance.