March 24, 2004 4:52 PM PST

Tracking tags may get congressional scrutiny

A Democratic senator has called for a congressional hearing on an emerging merchandise tracking technology that has alarmed consumer privacy advocates.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., called for the hearing during a speech at Georgetown University on Tuesday. He suggested that use of the technology, known as radio frequency identification (RFID), may need to be regulated at the federal level.

"We are on the verge of a revolution in micro-monitoring--the capability for the highly detailed, largely automatic, widespread surveillance of our daily lives," Leahy said, according a transcript of the speech.

"RFIDs seem poised to become the catalyst that will launch the age of micro-monitoring," he added.

Leahy delivered the speech during a video-surveillance conference at the university's law school.

His comments come as commercial giants Albertsons, Wal-Mart Stores and Target are drawing up plans for wide-scale use of RFID systems to monitor merchandise in its path from the factory to cash register, and possibly beyond.

In recent months, the U.S. government has joined in on the action. The Pentagon is expanding its RFID program in an effort to keep armed forces supplied on the battlefield. The Food and Drug Administration recently encouraged the pharmaceutical industry to use the technology to help curb the counterfeit drug trade.

"The RFID train is beginning to leave the station, and now is the right time to begin a national discussion about where, if at all, any lines will be drawn to protect privacy rights," Leahy said.

Consumer advocates fear the push toward RFID will lead to a world in which everyday objects, such as razors and socks, are "tagged" with tiny sensors that can wirelessly communicate with computer networks. In such a scenario, according to even some proponents of the technology, all kinds of personal belongings could constantly broadcast messages about their whereabouts and their owners.

Such visions have already fueled legislative debate at the state level, with at least three states--California, Missouri and Utah--introducing bills designed to assuage privacy concerns related to RFID.

A hearing at the federal level is not likely before the end of the year, a Leahy representative said.

In the meantime, the public shouldn't fret too much about RFID systems impinging on their personal privacy, said Jack Grasso, a spokesman for EPCGlobal, the organization that coordinates much of the commercial development of the technology.

For now, Wal-Mart, Procter & Gamble and other early adopters of the technology are using RFID to monitor shipments of goods to their back rooms in order to cut millions of dollars in logistics costs. Because of the relatively high cost of RFID tags, retailers have yet to use RFID more broadly to monitor goods on store shelves, he said. However, tag prices are expected to drop over the next few years. Meanwhile, some retailers have quietly experimented with RFID-enabled "smart shelves" in stores, involving, in some cases, unwitting shoppers.

Grasso said his group welcomes the privacy debate. "We want to be part of the process of providing whatever education and perspective will guide public policy," he said. "We do believe, though, that any legislation that unduly restricts the use of RFID in the supply chain would not be to the benefit of consumers at all."

 

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