Logistically Speaking: The Late Great Planet RFID

If you thought the protests over RFID’s privacy-invading capabilities had subsided, think again.

Growing up as part of the Baby Boomer generation, and with a natural predisposition toward both Biblical epics and the popular culture of the time, I had a brief fascination in the 1970s with the doomsday writings of Hal Lindsey. His books seemed to have it all: insidious villains bent on nothing short of total global domination, and not just of people but their very souls; high-tech hardware that rivaled the most outlandish weaponry that superspy James Bond ever went up against; and a spooky "this could really happen to YOU" undercurrent that made even the most bombastic predictions sound, well, not entirely unlikely.

Though his books read like science fiction, Lindsey in fact wrote Apocalyptic (with a capital A) predictions of the end times, based on his interpretation of scripture (mostly The Book of Revelation). Beginning with The Late Great Planet Earth (1970) and extending into an entire cottage industry of Armageddon-obsessed books, Lindsey warned of a time when everybody is tagged with a serial number that would identify them for all transactions. Anytime you wanted to buy something, not only would the products be scanned at the checkout line, but you yourself would be scanned to verify payment. Kind of like the E-ZPass readers cars now carry to zip through highway toll booths, but instead of the car carrying the chip, it would be people.

I’m not sure whether Lindsey faded away or if I just stopped paying attention to him, but it was a good 20 years or so before I would think of him again, while writing my own book (which hasn’t yet become a cottage industry) about supply chain management best practices. In a chapter about radio frequency identification (RFID), I reported how privacy advocacy groups had derailed or shut down various retail pilot projects on the grounds that tagging household goods like shaving razors and underwear with “spychips” posed a serious threat to every consumer’s personal privacy. Without necessarily citing Lindsey’s “mark of the beast” concerns, these groups make frequent allusions to how governments and corporations have developed technology capable of Nazi-like incursions into our daily lives. And some of their boycotts and protests have succeeded in stopping major RFID initiatives dead in their tracks.

Now comes word out of Texas, that a high schooler is resisting an attempt by her local school district to have all the kids in a couple schools wear an RFID-enabled badge that would track the whereabouts of the kids wherever they were on campus (yes, even in the bathroom). The school board claims that by tracking each child, they can verify exactly how many students are in school on any given day, and since Texas schools are funded based on daily attendance, more accurate counts could help fiscally-challenged school districts work their way back into the black.

One of the students, though, and her parents are saying no to the RFID. Not merely on the grounds that it would invade her privacy, but as a threat to her religious freedom. In a recent Associated Press article by Paul Weber, the objection to the tracking chip is that it represents a "submission to a false god" by willingly allowing oneself to be monitored by a Big Brother-type of secular authority. The article quotes John Whitehead, who is representing the schoolgirl in a lawsuit against the school district, as saying, "There is a large portion of Evangelicals that believe in the mark of the beast."

While some believe that RFID tracking of human beings is not only inevitable but in fact has already arrived (you probably don't want to know how accurately your cell phone tracks your daily comings and goings), it's far from a foregone conclusion that the technology will soon transform the world into an Orwellian dystopia. More than a decade after a loud public protest caused apparel maker Benetton Group to scuttle its plans to embed RFID chips into its garments, the company still carries a statement on its website stating that it has never used RFID and doesn’t plan to. If lessons truly are learned the hard way, Benetton certainly seems to have taken that lesson to heart.

On the other hand, the RFID market grew by more than $1 billion over the past year to $7.67 billion, according to IDTechEx, so Benetton notwithstanding, the technology is clearly paying off for many manufacturers and retailers who see the gains from improved inventory accuracy being worth the headaches of an occasional PR beating. This debate is far from over.

Follow me on Twitter @supplychaindave.

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