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IBM's new RFID "clipped tag" aims to assuage consumer privacy fears

Friday, November 10, 2006 by: Ben Kage
Tags: RFID, consumer privacy, tracking technology

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(NewsTarget) Radio Frequency Identification tags -- electronic tags that store data and transmit it to sensors within a certain range -- have caused controversy since it was first theorized that they could be used carry private information, but IBM claims they have an answer to privacy concerns.

On Wednesday the company announced its first manufacturing agreement for the "Clipped Tag," an RFID with an antenna that can be ripped off as easily as a piece of paper.

An RFID can be valuable for retailers because clerks do not have to directly scan the tag like they do a barcode, and the readers can scan up to 1,000 tags at any given time. Customers could purchase an entire cart full of tagged items in one quick scan.

However, the average RFID tag can be scanned by a sensor up to 30 feet away, so one containing customer information that can speed up a transaction can also present a security risk from someone with their own scanner. The RFID scanners could also be used to track people who are carrying tagged items and identify robbery targets carrying expensive merchandise. Theoretically, the tags could be destroyed or wiped as soon as the items are purchased, but then that would make returning items and other merchandise issues very difficult. The clipped chip's removable antenna leaves the choice over whether to disable an RFID up to the consumer.

Obviously, some customer education would be necessary, said IBM Research scientist and co-inventor of the tag, Paul Moskowitz.

Katherine Albrecht, an opponent of RFID tags and co-author of "Spychips: How Major Corporations and Government Plan to Track Your Every Purchase and Watch Your Every Move" said that the clipped tag may still be insufficient to ensure privacy, since item-level tagging will create an infrastructure that could be misused.

"If you can get the camel's nose in the tent, the rest of the camel is likely to follow," she said.

Privacy is not the only hurdle before IBM and competing RFID developers. Currently, RFID's are too expensive for item-level tagging, although experts suggest that the costs will eventually decline. A promotional video of the Clipped Tag is available on YouTube, but the manufacturing licensee, Marnlen RFID, and IBM do not have any business customers yet. They are currently in talks with U.S., Canadian and European retailers about pilot tests, Moskowitz said.


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