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Radio tags send mixed signals

Privacy advocates fear Big Brother will read your purse

PARIS Radio frequency identification tags, a high-tech replacement for bar codes, are being used to track border crossings in Israel, blood samples and beer kegs in Britain, library books in Belgium and Singapore, cattle in Italy, precious paintings in a Dutch museum and sales of razor blades, shampoo and cream cheese in Germany.

Yet the tags - tiny computer chips with mini-antennas that can be attached to products or embedded in them - are not yet as global as they might be.

Radio frequency and standardization problems are preventing the tags from proliferating in storerooms, and some consumers, saying privacy issues may outweigh any advantages, are protesting their introduction on store shelves.

Industry observers say that despite significant barriers that are still being overcome, there is no stopping the widespread rollout of the technology.

The radio tag technology makes use of radio frequencies to send signals over a short distance and receive responses from chips embedded in goods, built into packaging or attached as labels.

The advantage over bar codes, which have to be scanned one at a time and contain only general information, is that a device that reads the radio tags can scan every item in a case, pallet or shopping cart at once and glean specific information about the products' origins and freshness.

The new tags are supposed to help retailers be more efficient about restocking popular items and reduce the amount of lost or stolen goods. If a retailer could track every item at all times and stock accordingly, the theory goes, sales would go up, inventories would go down and labor costs would be cut.

The technology makes sense to global retailers only if a pallet packed in China, for example, can be scanned by an RFID reader in Europe or Latin America. But the frequency of the tags' radio signals differs from region to region. And different technology companies have developed radio tags differently, meaning that chips and scanners made by one company may not work with those of another.

That is why some large European retailers say that while they are testing the radio technology, they will not use it on a wider scale until standards and frequency problems are solved.

"RFID is clearly the future of commerce, but it is not ready yet," said an executive at one French retailer, who asked not to be identified.

There are competing proposals for setting standards for the way tags and readers communicate. One is from a group of big established technology companies like Philips Electronics and Texas Instruments. Another set of standards, called the Freedom Proposal, is backed by three small U.S. companies - Alien Technology, Matrics and Atmel - that have already sold millions of the radio tags to large corporate customers, like Gillette and International Paper.

A milestone was reached this week, when an international group refereeing the two groups succeeded in getting consensus on a single global protocol, said Henri Barthel, a Brussels-based manager with EAN International, the not-for-profit organization that oversees the bar code system and will help oversee the radio tagging.

At the same time, efforts are under way to harmonize ultrahigh frequency, or UHF, bands used by the radio tags, which work in the range of 860 to 960 megahertz. Problems include the fact that the frequency used for RFID applications in most European countries is reserved for military applications in France and in Poland.

In the meantime, Tesco and Marks Spencer in Britain and Metro Group in Germany are moving ahead with plans to use the radio tags for inventory tracking nationally.

Tesco, the supermarket chain, has started to put the tags on nonfood items at its distribution centers in Britain and is tracking them through the stores. Marks Spencer is tagging men's suits at six stores in Britain that are serviced by a distribution center in Neasden. Carrefour in France is testing the use of the radio tags in its supply chain.

Metro Group, which operates more than 2,300 wholesale centers, supermarkets, department stores and consumer electronics stores, met with 300 of its suppliers in May to outline its RFID plans. It will require at least 20 of its large suppliers to affix the tags to pallets of goods by November and another 80 within a year.

With standards falling into place and initial trials in the United States and Europe reporting positive results, a strong uptick in demand for the radio chips is predicted over the next 12 to 18 months, said Christophe Duverne, vice president for marketing and sales at Philips Semiconductors' identification group, which makes the radio chips.

But it will take until 2010, or later, before a significant number of the tags end up in stores, Duverne said.

Gerd Wolfram, project manager in charge of Metro Group's Extra Future Store in Rheinberg, Germany, noted that before every product sold in stores can be tagged, radio tag readers will have to be installed on all store shelves and the check-out process changed.

To some, the consumer benefits are not worth it. Britain's National Consumer Council in May called on European authorities to investigate the tags, which it calls spy chips, and issue guidance to safeguard consumer privacy.

The fear is that the tags' tracking ability could create an Orwellian world where law enforcement officials and prying retailers could read the contents of a car trunk or a handbag with RFID readers.

Privacy groups are concerned that if a person enters a store with the tags - for example, in articles of clothing or in cards in a wallet - retailers could compile a more complete profile of shoppers without their knowledge.

With those issues in mind, Metro Group discontinued a trial in which the radio tags were inserted in consumer loyalty cards after the German privacy and consumer protection group FöBuD and about 14 German consumer and civil liberty groups protested in February.

To reassure consumers, Metro has installed a radio ID tag deactivator in its Extra Future Store. Those who choose to deactivate the tags on products that they buy are first able to read what information the tags contain.

Before deactivation, data are limited to product information like price, expiration or place of origin, but there is no information about the consumer who bought the product, a spokeswoman said. When deactivated, all the information is erased.

Some, though, envision a darker future. Metro was given a 2003 "Big Brother" award by FöBuD, which cited a hypothetical example of a surprised consumer who receiving a summons in the mail for littering. The wrapping paper of a candy bar she bought was found in the town park, floating in the duck pond, under the hypothetical. The woman remembered that she gave the sweet to a child, but the wrapper was traced back to her purchase and she was fined.

Technology companies insist that the tags will not invade privacy, but critics say businesses will have to do a better job communicating with the public about how the tags work and where and why they are being used before they will be widely accepted.

Jennifer L. Schenker

International Herald Tribune

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