IBM clips RFID's wings to stop private data's flight

'Clipped Tag' to balance cost-saving with privacy

Trying to balance the cost-saving benefits of RFID with consumers' privacy concerns, IBM's Watson Research Center has developed a technology dubbed Clipped Tag.

Set to ship this week, the tags, made by partner, Marnlen Management, will allow consumers to shorten the range of RFID from feet to inches -- reducing privacy concerns -- by simply snapping off a portion of the tag's radio antenna.

Retailers and manufacturers see RFID as a way to lower costs by tracking inventory more accurately at the store level, using the tag as a form of a permanent receipt for returns and recalls, or to catch shoplifters. Also, because RFID tags do not have to be aligned with a reader as do bar codes, they could be a competitive differentiator from other retailers due to quicker check out times.

However, a typical RFID tag has a range of 30 feet, and it is possible that a consumer product using an embedded RFID tag could be read without the knowledge of the consumer.

"If you tear off a part of the antenna it would have to be held up to a reader," member of the Watson Research Center and one of the inventors of the Clipped Tag, Paul Moskowitz, said.

Retail industry representatives have long talked about using the tag on products so that mall shoppers might be called on their cell phones as they pass a store from which the tagged item was purchased offering them a discount.

With pharmaceutical products, patient privacy is protected by Health Insurance Portability & Accountability Act [HIPPA], another cause of concern. Prescription medicine may be the first to be tagged at the item level, in which case a tagged prescription could easily be associated with a person and read by someone other than the pharmacist.

Dr Ann Cavoukian, the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario, Canada, who said the clipped tag concept solves a problem she had wrestled with for years: how to protect a consumer's privacy while still offering them the benefits of RFID technology.

Technology currently exists to kill an RFID tag at the point of sale. However, Cavoukian said it also killed the post sale benefits of an RFID tag.

But tags that are perpetually embedded in an item can easily link purchases with consumer's personal information through credit or loyalty cards.

"You could create a data trail relating to all of your purchases and activities that could then be developed into a personal profile, and from that you could create an infrastructure for surveillance," Cavoukian said.

Clipped tags with shortened antennas gives consumers control to exercise warranties or recalls because it is essentially deactivated when out of range of the point of sale reader and reactivated when returned to the reader.

With the exception of pharmaceuticals, item-level RFID tagging was still years away, Moskowitz said.

He estimated there were about 1 billion RFID tags currently being made for pallet and cases, while there were about 100 billion cases created worldwide per year.

"The manufacturing capability of tags is only about 1 per cent of all pallets and cases. It will be a long way before we can label 2 trillion retail items," Moskowitz said.

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Ephraim Schwartz

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