Smile, You’re On RFID Camera

I’ve previously written about RFID tags and their privacy implications.  Today, Slashdot had this article that includes details of a scheme being introduced in England that would snap your picture when you remove a tagged item from the shelf and then use that to identify you at checkout (supposedly to match you to the item to prevent shoplifting).

Alan Robinson, manager at the Tesco store on Newmarket Street, Cambridge, seems excited about this store’s current trials of RFID tags in Gillette Mach3 razorblades. Speaking to Smart Labels Analyst magazine in April this year, he said: “We are cooperating with this trial in every way we can – we would like to be a test bed for many more trials of this kind.” He adds: “We haven’t had a single customer ask what the tag is doing in their packet of razors!” Notoriously subject to theft (small, expensive and easily resold), these blades were tagged by Gillette, which earlier this year ordered 500m radio-frequency ID tags from the aptly named Alien Technology Corp. At the Tesco Cambridge store, reports the magazine, a camera trained on the Gillette blade shelf, and triggered by the tags, captures a photo of each customer who removes a Mach3 pack. Another photo is taken at the checkout and security staff compare the two images to ensure they always have a pair.

A spokesman for Tesco confirmed that this set-up is in operation. He says: “Generally in retailing, razorblades are stolen more than other products, but that is not why we are doing the trial. We have plenty of security measures in place to stop things being stolen. [This trial] is not to do with security or theft, it is a supply chain trial.” According to the spokesman,”there are certainly not any privacy concerns” in relation to these tags. He adds that there is plenty of in-store signage indicating the supermarket’s use of CCTV cameras.

Still, customers might not infer from this information that these cameras are being used to take a digital photo of them each time they lift a Gillette razorblade from the store’s shelf – it only takes one to prompt the camera – and again when they present the pack at the checkout. Tesco says that the photos are “temporarily stored”, but does not specify for how long. However, Smart Labels Analyst magazine explains that this system enables the store to “blacklist certain shoppers and keep an eye on them”. In his interview with the magazine, Alan Robinson recounts an occasion when his Cambridge store was able to show the police a photograph of a shoplifter in the act of removing two packets of razors from the shelf: “The police were completely flabbergasted, having never seen anything like it in their lives.”

The two passages I’ve added emphasis to are quite telling.  No privacy concerns my ass.  These guys are the perfect examples of retailers who are eager to track your every move and link it all together to either market more crap to you or blacklist you from their stores.  And don’t think that the blacklisting will be confined to just shoplifters for long.  Complained about the service the other day and caused an employee to take too much time (but you don’t usually buy a lot of stuff in the store)?  You will be flagged as a costly complainer.  When you show up at the store next time they may try to drive you away, since you’re not worth enough for them to waste their time with you.  I know one person that Fry’s would probably love to keep out of their computer section (since he is known to them for questioning them about every sale item; which is quite aggravating to them, since their sales are often deceptive).

I just hope this never makes it here, but I’m not confident that the people in England will make enough fuss about it to make the trial unsuccessful.  They’ve gotten so used to meekly submitting to surveillance schemes that I fear for them as a people.

The rest of the article has more information about loyalty cards, which also makes for interesting reading.

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