Wal-Mart puts RFID on the map

Wal-Mart is good at getting attention. “”The sheer size of the Wal-Mart organization makes that the biggest story in any market they’re in,”” observes Ian McPherson, principal analyst at Wireless Data Research Group in San Mateo, Calif.

Radio frequency identification (RFID) is no exception.

Wal-Mart has told its top 100 suppliers that by January they must put RFID tags on their shipments (not on every item, just on pallets). The rest will have to follow within a year or two. That has a lot of them scrambling, says Paul Heino, president of Sundex Information Services, a Toronto company that is helping some of those suppliers meet Wal-Mart’s deadlines.

Other retailers are close behind, McPherson says. Once suppliers get into RFID to keep one big retailer’s business, they’ll find it easier to meet other customers’ RFID requests.

Heino adds that smart larger suppliers figure as long as they’re implementing RFID, they might as well track goods within their own factories and warehouses. McPherson agrees, noting though that because standards remain in flux and equipment costs are high, many suppliers are moving slowly. But RFID in the supply chain will grow. You may soon use it in your own business.

And it has possibilities far beyond the corporation. It’s already widely used: If your dog has a microchip to ensure it’ll be returned if it strays, that’s RFID. If you can unlock your car with a button on a special key fob, that’s RFID. If you’ve used the Dexit tag now being tested in Toronto to pay for fast food and other small purchases, that’s RFID too.

Identifying a stray dog is useful, but think of being able to find out where a cow has been throughout its lifetime. Given the mad cow disease scares of the last couple of years, this is attracting attention.

An RFID tag could confirm to parents that their child arrived at school in the morning. An RFID tag could alert caregivers when an Alzheimer’s Disease patient leaves home.

But there’s a scary side: RFID could make it easier to track anyone’s movements. Requiring people to wear the tags seems far-fetched, although if we can talk about national ID cards, we can probably talk about that. But as McPherson says, a lot of people sell their right to privacy very cheap: “”If an insurance company says you’ll get a 15-per cent reduction in premiums for outfitting your family with this chip, people will buy it.””

A recent study by ABI Research in Oyster Bay, N.Y., suggests RFID and wireless networking in cars could facilitate automated toll collection, intelligent safety systems, streaming entertainment and real-time traffic information – but could also track and log vehicle movements. Insurance companies could monitor your driving habits. Governments could track your movements. Paranoia? To suggest someone being pulled aside at an airport and winding up in a foreign prison based on circumstantial evidence would seem like it – except it appears already to have happened to at least one Canadian citizen, Maher Arar.

RFID is one of several innovations that open up the possibility of tracking the movement of goods and people much more extensively than has been practical before. This could be useful, and it could be abused. Don’t throw the technology out – but do recognize and discuss the issues before it’s too late.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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