Wal-Mart's plan to use smart RFID tags sparks privacy concerns

Wal-Mart is trying to keep better track of its inventory by adding smart tags, or RFID (radio frequency identification) tags, to individual items in its stores. But privacy experts and consumers are worried that store merchandise won't be the only thing it tracks.

Starting next month the tags, which the retailing giant previously used on pallets carrying products, will be embedded in the items you buy at the store. Equipped with a handheld reader, store workers will be able to quickly check the stock of an item on a shelf by scanning the tag. In addition to managing inventory, Walmart hopes that the tags will help curb employee theft by allowing the store to track the clothing throughout the store. Privacy experts are concerned, however, that the tracking may occur beyond the store.

Katherine Albrecht, the director of Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering, told USA Today that her organization is concerned that Wal-Mart could read personal information off of a RFID-equipped driver's license and then pair that information with that person's purchases to gain a better idea of the items they are buying.

Wal-Mart spokesman Lorenzo Lopez told WalletPop last week that the smart tags, which are also called electronic product codes or EPCs, are simply the next generation of barcodes and can only be read within a few feet of a scanner.

Consumers who responded to WalletPop's request for comment on Facebook are split on the issue of Wal-Mart's use of RFID tags on products.

"It's the same as having lowjack [sic] on your car, and tracking it when it's stolen," wrote Erica Ariel. But that was little consolation for some of WalletPop's Facebook friends."Are you seriously 'okay' with selling your liberty/privacy for $19.95 to a retailer? I hope not! For sure- there is NOTHING I could buy in Walmart, or anywhere else, that would equal in value to my privacy, liberty, or dignity. NOTHING!!,' wrote Catherine Moody on WalletPop's Facebook page.

Rachel Lynne Cabrera wrote that she was comfortable with the use of the tags "as long as [Walmart employees] diligently remove them when the purchase is paid for. I will be checking to make sure that there aren't such tags coming home with me."

Unfortunately, that won't be the case. Unlike the ink tags and electronic anti-theft tags that are removed when you complete your purchase, these RFID tags will remain active after you leave the store and can even survive being washed and dried. To completely remove the new smart tags from clothing, consumers will need to remove the price tag or the tag that contains the RFID chip; something Walmart is reportedly working with suppliers to make easier.

Still, the tags will be active when you throw them away, which raises more privacy concerns. In theory a criminal or a marketer could scan your garbage and know what you purchased. Not a big deal when you're talking underwear and socks -- but if the tags move to big-ticket items it could be a quick way for a savvy criminal to scan the trash on the street to see which homes have the best items to steal.

If you want to truly deactivate the RFID tags you will need to cut the chip with a knife or hit it with a hammer. Microwaving RFID chips is another way to kill an RFID chip, but it also carries with it a risk of fire so stick with a hammer or take the tags back to Walmart and drop them in the trash can at the front of the store.

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