The Cure for Paranoia

Aug. 1, 2003
Wal-Mart recently announced the cancellation of a trial with Gillette on the use of Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags in a smart-shelf system.

Wal-Mart recently announced the cancellation of a trial with Gillette on the use of Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags in a smart-shelf system. The reason for the cancellation — concern over customer perceptions of RFID.

The consumer privacy groups continue to spread misinformation about RFID, effectively halting the implementation of this technology. If Wal-Mart backs off, what will other companies do? Quite a few companies had announced plans to seriously and quickly look into RFID because of Wal-Mart’s decision to try the technology. With this latest announcement, the implementation of RFID may stall, yet again.

MHM already discussed the logic flaws of privacy groups’ arguments in this column in June. The main claim of the privacy groups — that RFID tags can be used to track the physical movements of all who wear clothes — is absurd because there’s no infrastructure in place to handle the data load. And we won’t have an infrastructure anytime in the near future. The controls and systems necessary haven’t even been developed.

But might there be another problem here? In the quest for the “killer application” that will propel RFID to the realms of tremendous success, has this technology become yet another victim of enthusiasm? By that, I refer to the history of many technological developments that didn’t become successes because they were rushed into implementation before good procedures or other components needed for their operation were put in place. These rushed technologies, which appeared to promise more than they delivered, were quickly viewed as solutions looking for problems.

Given the start-and-stop nature of RFID, one needs to ask: is it really ready to be implemented on a wide scale, or must other processes be readied first?

ARC Senior Analyst Harry Forbes brought up the point in the Wal-Mart announcement. He said that “testing RFID at the item level is quite premature until it proves its value by improving supply chain management, an area that cannot be construed as a threat to consumer privacy.”

Technology frequently faces the hurdle of when is the right time for widespread deployment. The usual inhibitors are cost or immature technology. RFID is not immature; it’s been around for years. Cost, though, is a factor. In the last few years, those advocating RFID have been trying to reduce its implementation costs. Volume, in the form of widespread deployment, has been viewed as the solution.

The cost factor is solvable, either by changes in the technology or in the manufacturing processes. While many view volume as the way to achieve lower costs for this technology, that may not be the best technique.

The newest and potentially more serious inhibitor to the deployment of RFID is ignorance. Consumer privacy groups have done quite a number on RFID technology, painting it as the means that marketers (and other less honorable groups) will use to track your every move, and somehow use this information against you. (Most likely to bombard you with advertising to buy what you don’t need, as if that doesn’t happen already by every other means possible.)

Ignorance of technology is a problem industries usually manage to overcome. Remember the controversy over cell phones and brain cancer? You don’t hear much about it now, and it certainly hasn’t stopped the use of cell phones. Wireless technology of all kinds will continue to face challenges from people who don’t understand it. And that’s as it should be. Because it’s up to us, the developers and users of technology, to educate them.

The AIM association has now joined in the effort to educate all interested parties on RFID technology. This association recently released a publication, “RFID FAQs, not Fiction,” available at its web site,

You can join, too. Use your knowledge and understanding of RFID to correct misinformation at every opportunity. Use the information from the AIM publication to help you in your educational efforts.

The only way we win with technology is if the majority understands it. Without understanding, groundless fear reigns. The cure for this paranoia is knowledge. Spread it around.

Leslie Langnau, contributing editor

[email protected]

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