TR: Are those realistic worries?
Hughes: They’re concerns that consumers have, so they are real to them and something that we feel needs to be addressed. But there are solutions for everything. If you think about it, the linkage in a retail store to personally identifiable information would be done just as it is today with bar codes. Whether consumers know it or not, if they have a loyalty card, the personal information that they have provided to get that card and all of the discounts and coupons that go with it must be linked to the bar codes of items that they purchase. So when you think about the electronic product code-this is the same thing.
TR: So you couldn’t track someone using a tag in his shirt or on a tube of toothpaste?
Hughes: The scenario I’ve heard is, “Somebody would be able to know every place I’ve been all throughout the day.” Let’s say that you went to a restaurant, and you went to a grocery store, and you went here or there. Wherever that tag is being read, that place would have to also have your personal information. And those locations would all have to be sharing information for someone to put it together and say, “This person went to this restaurant and this grocery store.” I can’t imagine businesses sharing that information about customers when you think that a lot of them are competing with each other.
TR: What about being able to follow someone directly using a tag, the way intelligence agencies have tracked terrorists using their cell phones?
Hughes: Assuming you knew someone’s identity and wanted to follow him using the tag like a homing device, you would have to be quite close to the person to “read” that tube of toothpaste. These are passive tags, which means they have no battery and don’t emit any signal unless a reader “wakes them up.” If you were going to stalk somebody, you don’t want to be seen. That’s going to be pretty difficult to do with passive tags.
TR: What about stores? Could the tags allow retailers to go even further in tracking customers and their buying habits?
Hughes: Well, the EPCglobal community has developed a set of usage guidelines. One of the things it says is that if a retailer is going to use the EPC information combined with personal information in any way differently than they do with bar codes today, then they need to make that information and choices available to the consumer. But to my knowledge, nobody has any plans to do that today.
TR: What if I’m freaked out anyway that you know exactly which tube of toothpaste I bought, and it has this working tag on it?
Hughes: These guidelines cover the basic tenets of privacy, which are that you let the consumer know that there is a tag on the product. And then they would be given a choice on disabling or deactivating those tags. But because the technology is in its infancy, there are not a lot of solutions yet. Basically, the tag can be removed or the packaging thrown away.
TR: That’s it? I can peel it off?
Hughes: Yes, or don’t buy the product. There will be other solutions-deactivation, either full or partial, I don’t know what else-all of which are still being developed and tested. We’re going to see a lot of developments, and it is really quite exciting to think about the way things will be five years from now. Already ideas are popping up-like blocker tags, or a metal shopping bag, because RFID can’t go through metal. There’s a lot of creativity that is still to come.