Bye Bye Wal-Mart: Wal-Mart Radio Tags to Track Clothing

Kaye Beach

July 29, 2010

What is Radio Frequency Identification?

RFID is a generic term for technologies that use radio waves to automatically identify people or objects.

Read up on Jeremy Bentham.  Bentham called the idea of natural rights “Nonsense on stilts”  He was a Utilitarian.  Utility being the point.  Bentham believed that the right or moral law or policy was the one that produced “the greatest good for the greatest number of people”

Jeremy Bentham also designed the Panopticon “a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example.”

The original Panopticon was design for a prison or other institution where maximum control with minimum manpower was desired over the individuals within. The panopticon as a metaphor serves to illustrate the dangers of ubiquitous surveillance that is fast becoming a reality for us today.  Read The Panopticon Singularity for a better idea of what I’m getting at.

Bentham knew how to tame the minds of men and understood that the closer your identification becomes to yourself, you, your very body, the better for the purpose of control.

He also understood the power of the gaze.

Where in your life now do you feel perfectly assured that you are utterly unobserved? You home?  How about your phone calls and emails?  Got a “smart meter” yet?

We now bank on the thought that we are insignificant and therefore not likely to be subjected to the totality of scrutiny that the state already possesses to levy upon us.   As we get more accustomed being intruded upon and  as the technologies become more accepted and advanced our insignificance will become less and less protective of our sense of seclusion.  So many aspects of  our life have already been invaded by the prying electronic eye of the state and soon no aspect will be assured privacy.  We will know that we are logged and accounted for as we go about our daily business and we will react to this just as Bentham understood we would when he designed his Panopticon.  We will act as though we are under constant scrutiny and adjust our behavior accordingly.

As a man thinks, so shall he be.

From the Wall Street Journal


Wal-Mart Stores Inc. plans to roll out sophisticated electronic ID tags to track individual pairs of jeans and underwear, the first step in a system that advocates say better controls inventory but some critics say raises privacy concerns.

Starting next month, the retailer will place removable “smart tags” on individual garments that can be read by a hand-held scanner. Wal-Mart workers will be able to quickly learn, for instance, which size of Wrangler jeans is missing, with the aim of ensuring shelves are optimally stocked and inventory tightly watched. If successful, the radio-frequency ID tags will be rolled out on other products at Wal-Mart’s more than 3,750 U.S. stores.

[…]But the company’s latest attempt to use its influence—executives call it the start of a “next-generation Wal-Mart”—has privacy advocates raising questions.

While the tags can be removed from clothing and packages, they can’t be turned off, and they are trackable. Some privacy advocates hypothesize that unscrupulous marketers or criminals will be able to drive by consumers’ homes and scan their garbage to discover what they have recently bought.

They also worry that retailers will be able to scan customers who carry new types of personal ID cards as they walk through a store, without their knowledge. Several states, including Washington and New York, have begun issuing enhanced driver’s licenses that contain radio- frequency tags with unique ID numbers

[…]Some privacy advocates contend that retailers could theoretically scan people with such licenses as they make purchases, combine the info with their credit card data, and then know the person’s identity the next time they stepped into the store.

“There are two things you really don’t want to tag, clothing and identity documents, and ironically that’s where we are seeing adoption,” said Katherine Albrecht, founder of a group called Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering and author of a book called “Spychips” that argues against RFID technology. “The inventory guys may be in the dark about this, but there are a lot of corporate marketers who are interested in tracking people as they walk sales floors.”

[…]Several other U.S. retailers, including J.C. Penney and Bloomingdale’s, have begun experimenting with smart ID tags on clothing to better ensure shelves remain stocked with sizes and colors customers want, and numerous European retailers, notably Germany’s Metro AG, have already embraced the technology.

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The question is;  How can these little chips sprinkled upon our individual items and purchases compromise our personal privacy?

Remember  pointillism in art class?  Little dots of color up close mean little, but create a vivid picture when you step back from the canvas.  Little bits of information provided by the radio tags individually reveal little, but when taken in context create a coherent story about you.  Your location, habits and  associations can be discerned easily as these little buggers become more and more prevalent.

Georges Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte—1884, at varying levels of abstraction.  Even the lower right image is actually an abstraction of an abstraction: while the original work is still composed of distinct points, the image you’re seeing here was produced at far fewer dots per inch by the printer…

The message is that data points may become far, far more common, due to RFID.  While each, by itself, is next to meaningless, in vast accumulations you’ll start to discern meaningful pictures.

Or, as Lenin said, “Quantity is quality.”

To better understand how RFID tagging of individual items can compromise your privacy, see this excellent presentation embedded below.


6 responses to “Bye Bye Wal-Mart: Wal-Mart Radio Tags to Track Clothing

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Bye Bye Wal-Mart: Wal-Mart Radio Tags to Track Clothing: July 29, 2010 What is Radio Frequency Identification? RFI... --

  2. Saynara Walmart, JCPennys and whoever else wants to do this, I’d rather buy 2nd hand anyway, so it doesn’t go to the Chinese. Sorry but its the way I feel.

  3. Another great post, keep up the good work…

  4. Crying As They Dragged Me From The Capitol

    Okie Pubis will say this is a good thing. After all, when you’re as bony as the Laurel, or as disgustingly obese as the Hardy of the the team, those special ordered shirts and slacks can be hard to come by. God forbid they should get stolen.

  5. Pingback: Healthcare, RFID and Medical Devices: Worry or Not? | AxXiom for Liberty

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