CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- For all of the excitement generated lately about RFID tags, significant problems remain to be solved before the technology can be embraced by smaller retailers -- and at the store level.
Those concerns were addressed by an assortment of industry and academic experts recently at the RFID Privacy Workshop, hosted by the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab at MIT here.
MIT is the birthplace of the RFID (radio frequency identification) technology based on the EPC (electronic product code), a digital identifier for products and shipments that is being groomed to replace the bar code. The EPC was developed at MIT's Auto-ID Center, which was closed last month as its duties were assumed by EPCglobal and Auto-ID Labs.
Most of the activity surrounding the EPC has been around using it to identify pallets and cases, which Wal-Mart has asked its suppliers to do. However, the EPC's ultimate use as a way of identifying specific items came into question at the meeting, held Nov. 15.
"An awful lot of retailers will see this as a big, unfunded mandate," said Ross Stapleton-Gray, a California-based technology consultant. For RFID to succeed on store shelves, Stapleton-Gray asserted, its benefits must reach a tipping point where large numbers of retailers see the value in embracing it.
Speakers noted that while large retailers like Wal-Mart, Ahold and Target can afford to install RFID readers and software systems to take advantage of RFID, smaller or independent grocers might not. Critically, they might forego the "kill technology" that larger retailers promise they will install to deactivate tagged items before a customer takes them home.
Yet without this technology, tagged items would likely still be placed on shelves and find their way into consumers' hands, creating possible privacy issues.
RFID supporters argued at the conference that the business incentives to win over smaller retailers would appear eventually. Wholesalers will start delivering goods with RFID tags on the pallets, so at the very least an independent grocer could put a reader at the back door.
"That's a benefit that someone else is paying for," said Ted Mason, director of emerging technologies, Food Marketing Institute, Washington.
Additionally, RFID might open new revenue opportunities from third parties. Market researchers could offer to install readers at a store in exchange for access to data about consumer buying patterns. Even Stapleton-Gray, a skeptic of RFID's value to the retailer, admitted that as a consultant, "I might want to do that."
To address privacy concerns, researchers at the MIT conference presented several alternative ideas: "blocker tags" that confuse RFID readers; kill functions embedded in tags; and tags that disclose some product information, but not all.
The key to success, said keynote speaker Peter de Jager, columnist for Computerworld Canada, will be for retailers to create an RFID environment where the consumer feels in control. Otherwise, privacy activists will fuel fears about the technology, "and RFID isn't going to happen."