The Big Picture

June 1, 2003
Its frightening, frustrating, and disturbing what people dont know about information technology and how data are collected by controls and systems. Take

It’s frightening, frustrating, and disturbing what people don’t know about information technology and how data are collected by controls and systems. Take RFID, for example. There are privacy advocate groups who are frightened that embedded RFID chips in clothing will be used to track everyone’s movements, enabling companies to inundate us with advertisements and marketing pitches.

Let’s look at the big picture here. RFID is basic. Data are stored on tags that are read by scanners. The read distance is usually limited to two feet, although some tags can be read at greater distances to gather data on items stored in cases and palletloads. The information on a tag usually consists of manufacturing lot, destination, data shipped, etc.

Most tags used on clothes at retail stores are read-only. But, for the sake of argument, let’s suppose companies did decide to spend tens of dollars per memory chip per tag they wanted to embed in every piece of retail merchandise. (We’re suspending, for the moment, the fact that companies don’t want to pay more than five or 10 cents per RFID tag.) In this application, read-write tags would be best because you would have to erase each days’ collected data to be ready for the next day’s tracking tasks. (We’re saving money here by having the tags hold only enough memory for a day’s tracking.)

I hate to throw a little reality into this science-fiction story we’re weaving, but can you imagine the management hassles of such a system, clearing out millions (billions?) of tags each day just to gather data on millions of T-shirt wearers’ movements? Oh, and don’t forget, they may not wear that T-shirt every day. So now we’re talking about tracking tags on literally billions of pieces of clothing. (How much closet space do your spouse and children require for their clothes?)

Now, for such a consumer-tracking system to work, we would need scanners. Lots of them. They would have to be installed at every corner, street intersection, store entry, mall, restaurant, movie theater, home, office, school, basically everywhere, to notice when an embedded tag T-shirt happens to walk by.

Now, back to the privacy groups’ tracking fears; we would need a stupendous computer and software. We’re talking REALLY BIG here, because remember, we have to track billions and billions of pieces of clothing, and that’s just in the U.S. alone. Next, we need an amazing database program to handle all that cross-referencing. A program that, to my knowledge, has yet to be developed.

All of the computer and system infrastructure needed to track consumer movements through embedded RFID tags in clothing is going to cost. We’re talking big bucks here, and unless retailers have joined with the U.S. government to form a conspiracy group, such a system won’t be developed. Besides, the software needed for such a system will have too many bugs in it to be of any use.

I’m a big fan of science fiction, but the scenario painted by privacy advocacy groups on the Big-Brother dangers of RFID tags falls apart under the weight of its absurdity.

As a material handler, you know this about RFID tags. It’s not rocket-science. You know the strengths and, most importantly, the limitations of this technology. And you also know it will take a good controls and systems infrastructure, one that hasn’t been developed yet, and one not likely to be in the near future. (Most companies are still working on the infrastructure for supply chains, which still has parts “to be developed.”)

So, one has to wonder why the executives at companies such as Philips Electronics and Benetton, among others, don’t understand RFID, as recent news stories have implied. Because if they did, they would have been able to answer the inflammatory charges made by privacy advocacy groups. They would have been able to logically and rationally explain why the privacy groups’ nightmare scenarios are nothing more than science fiction for those who love conspiracy theories. Instead, these executives caved in against the threat of bad PR and put a hold on their projects, effectively setting back the use of a decent solution for who knows how long.

Such ignorance of technology is inexcusable, especially when the ignorant are those who are supposed to lead companies. All it would take is a simple demonstration to show the privacy groups that they need not worry.

Obviously, those executives didn’t ask you, the material handling manager, about the technology. If they had, you could have told them all they need to know. Of course, you might have to simplify it for them.

Leslie Langnau, senior technical editor [email protected]

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