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20 March 2007

Are smart tags really so smart?

Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags are amazing things, storing all sorts of data about anyth

By Mike Butcher

Now European citizens will get the chance to shape policy on smart tags. The European Commission – after a year of consultation – is setting up a group made up of citizens, scientists, data protection experts and businesses to discuss how the tags should be used. They have until the end of 2008. It’s about time. Right now there are no new laws coming out of the EU to govern their use.

However, this has not stopped Viviane Reding, EU information society and media commissioner, saying at a recent press conference that heavy-handed regulation could stunt the growth of the RFID industry. Smart tags have already generated about 500m euros (£340m) in revenues across Europe, and this is expected to grow to more than 7bn euros (£4.7bn) within 10 years. Industry, says Reding, has the chance to “go for it”.

Not the kind of talk you usually hear from EU regulatory commissioners. And slightly worrying when Reding herself admitted that 60% of respondents to an EU-wide survey said they had no idea if RFID was a good or a bad thing.

RFID tags are not very problematic when all you have to read are the contents of a shipping container. What about the contents of your shopping? Or what clothes you are wearing as you walk into Gap?

German retail giant Metro, which has run RFID trials, found shoppers had an answer. They deactivated any tags on the goods they had bought at the checkout, sometimes just by snapping them.

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Smart tags offer a gleaming future of seamless shopping. In theory we will fairly shortly be walking into supermarkets, stores, you name it, and just walking out with the goods we want – credit cards automatically debited for the items as we stroll past the RFID readers at the entrance.

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The technology promises a nirvana for retail businesses and – probably – something of a nightmare for thousands of ordinary shop workers. Who knows, perhaps a Luddite revolution will happen again?