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Getting Personal

According to Cantwell, Gillette and many other companies envision using tags to download promotional material to displays mounted on store shelves, or even to shoppers’ handheld computers. By simply scanning a product in front of a networked reader linked to a computer monitor, customers could one day retrieve user instructions, specifications and other product information to help them decide, for instance, which toothbrush is more flexible or which soup has less sodium.

Talk to Cantwell awhile longer, and he’s likely to bring up Gillette’s next goal: using readers to track consumer use of its products at home. Gillette sees the technology engaged in direct consumer marketing, which would rely on personalized information obtained from readers installed where products are actually used-in your refrigerator, say. While this scenario may be decades away, the coming era of ubiquitous computing could bring Internet access to every household appliance. “Smart” fridges could monitor tagged products, learn your food preferences and shopping schedule, and then buy all your groceries for you. And, if you let them, companies like Gillette will monitor personal use of their products. Throw one of their razors into the trash, and another one would be on its way.

That’s a vision that, predictably, has marketers salivating. But are you ready for a system that surrounds you and monitors your family’s day-to-day activities? Watchdog organizations like the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington, DC-based public interest group focused on civil liberties, worry about new challenges to privacy. “Imagine putting a frozen pizza into a microwave that downloads cooking instructions from Pizza Hut,” suggests the group’s staff counsel, Alan Davidson. “Is Pizza Hut going to track the server of that microwave? Will they find out where and when you bought the pizza, and are they logging this transaction? Suddenly they have a detailed record that describes your personal activities.”

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