Oops: Posted PR Documents Prompt Complaints On Smart Tags
A consortium developing RFID tags mistakenly put up on its Web site information on how to neutralize opposition to the tags and respond to potential privacy concerns.
BOSTON (AP) -- A consortium developing radio-tagged chips to replace bar codes in stores mistakenly posted confidential documents on its Web site that detail strategies to counter complaints the technology will be misused by retailers, the government, or criminals to snoop on consumers.
The documents from the Auto-ID Center, a research group affiliated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, contain advice from center officials and a public relations firm, Fleishman-Hillard, on how to "neutralize opposition" and respond to potential privacy concerns from the public and media.
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Among their suggestions: retailers should refer to the technology as "improved barcodes."
The radio tag being developed by Auto-ID can help companies track their products through the supply chain so that, for instance, they know exactly when a batch has moved from the factory floor to a distributor, or when a particular store is running low.
The documents posted online say "Confidential, for sponsors only," but the research group says all such documents are made public within three months anyway.
"Nothing we do is confidential," said Sanjay Sarma, the center's research chairman.
The publicity misstep comes the same week that one of the consortium's 103 corporate sponsors, Wal-Mart Stores, confirmed it has shelved one of the first and most closely watched experiments with deploying the technology in a retail setting.
Earlier this year, Wal-Mart said it would launch a test at a store in Boston with products from Gillette, another sponsor of the consortium. And in June, Wal-Mart urged its top 100 suppliers to put the tiny radio transmitters on products they provide to its stores.
But now, the retailer says it wants to focus on using the "RFID" radio-frequency systems to help track the flow of goods in its warehouses and distribution centers instead.
"RFID at the product level is many, many years down the road for us," Wal-Mart spokesman Tom Williams said.
The documents mistakenly posted online were discovered this week by CASPIAN, or Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering, a New Hampshire group which fears the technology could one day be hacked by criminals or used by the government to keep track of what individual consumers purchase.
The Auto-ID center has repeatedly stressed it does not intend to create technology that would be used for monitoring once a product is sold and leaves the store.
CASPIAN Director Katherine Albrecht said the content of the documents was disturbing and expressed concern about the MIT group's lax security in protecting its own information.
Her group pointed to one document detailing a strategy to "Assess consumer reaction if press develop scare stories and develop best messages to pacify."
The documents reported that 78 percent of respondents to an online survey had expressed privacy concerns about the tags, but that most consumers would be "apathetic" and "resign themselves to the inevitability of it" rather than taking action.
"I think what's been revealed (by the posted documents) is an organization that's operated in secrecy for three years now, that has relied on its ability to operate in secrecy, and has realized when it goes public it has a big problem on its hands because people don't want what they're selling," Albrecht said.
But Sarma said the information in question was taken out of context from a brainstorming discussion. The documents as a whole show "a very honorable outcome," he said.
"We tell consumers this is what the technology does, these are the risks, these are the benefits," he said. "You will know when the technology is in place, and if you want to opt out, you can kill the tag."