A couple of months ago, I wrote an article for our Web site about two people on an airplane passing a copy of InformationWeek. Referring to a story on radio-frequency ID tags, the woman in seat 3C said to the man in 3D, "Can you believe people think this stuff will actually work?" He responded with a "they're crazy" kind of snicker. I restrained myself from telling them how those tiny tags can dramatically change supply chains, giving companies such as Procter & Gamble and Gillette unprecedented control over inventory and shipping. How they could help companies prevent billions of dollars in product theft. Or how they can even help with health-care safety.
Maybe they weren't unenlightened, but rather suspected that a consumer privacy backlash might prevent RFID strategies from moving forward. I still think there's a huge market ahead, but when I read that Benetton is now waffling on its plan to insert the tags into its clothing after a barrage of concern from privacy advocates (informationweek.com/935/benetton.htm), I realized the issue was getting more serious. Advocates of the tags have been working for years on ways to provide safeguards to consumers and to dispel the many myths that exist (Gillette will never know that you're shaving your face at 3 p.m. on Saturday). One method that's likely to come to fruition is a way of "killing" the tag at the point of purchase. "We want to provide consumers with clear options," says Sanjay Sarma, research director of the Auto-ID Center, a consortium of key RFID players.
More education is needed before we're all comfortable our privacy is being protected. But to my friends on the airplane, yeah, I do believe this can work, if companies act ethically and responsibly--something we should all demand of everyone we do business with.