Privacy advocates, prepare to have a field day. Walmart has just announced plans to embed individual garments with scannable electronic ID tags, the first step in a real-time tracking system for controlling inventory and preventing theft, according to the Wall Street Journal. Starting August 1, the big-box retailer will be placing removable radio-frequency ID (RFID) tags on its jeans and underwear, a move that will allow its employees to find out which sizes are missing from the shelves—and what additional items remain in the storeroom—with a wave of a handheld scanner.
YOU’RE BEING WATCHED
Retailers have long employed RFID tags, which act like long-range barcodes that can be scanned from a distance, to track pallets of merchandise moving through their supply chains. Walmart is the first to implement the tags in-store, rather than behind the scenes, but its broad adoption of the costly technology may result in enough of a price drop for other retailers to follow suit.
Although you can rip the radio tags off your new pair of 501s, you can’t turn them off.
Although you can rip the radio tags off your new pair of 501s, you can’t turn them off, a fact that has watchdog groups crying foul—or rather, “Big Brother.” Underhanded marketers or crooks driving by could scan your garbage to identify recent purchases, for one.
Another concern that has privacy experts ruffled up: Sneaky retailers could scan customers who carry RFID-enhanced ID cards (such as drivers’ licenses, which states like Washington and New York have begun issuing) as they browse the store’s wares. Combined with their credit card information, the data could allow retailers to put a number to person and identify them the next time they step into their premises.