Protesters gathered Wednesday afternoon at the opening of the RFID in Fashion conference in New York City to urge clothing manufacturers and retailers not to embed tracking chips into articles of clothing.
The industry conference, one of several hosted by RFID Journal magazine, allows clothing manufacturers to learn the state of the RFID industry and meet with RFID suppliers and industry executives. RFID, or radio frequency identification, is a small chip with a unique identifying number which can be read from as far away as 30 feet. The RFID in Fashion conference is being held Wednesday and Thursday at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.
But at this conference, the industry is urging clothing manufacturers to embed RFID chips directly into their clothing for purposes of inventory control and loss prevention, known in the industry as item-level tagging, according to consumer privacy expert Katherine Albrecht, who co-authored the book on RFID, Spychips. And that raises what she calls a “privacy nightmare.”
“We’re here to let the industry know that consumers don’t want tracking devices in their clothing,” Albrecht said. “When they embed [RFID] into clothing, or shoes, or other items people wear or carry, they can also put the readers to pick up those signals into floors, doorways, ceiling tiles, anywhere people go, and use them to track and identify people.”
Retailers would create databases linking individual RFID chips to consumers at the point of purchase, creating a database of what each person bought which would allow businesses or governments to keep tabs on every individual passing through a given area. The technology to accomplish this tracking, Albrecht says, has already been developed.
A conference attendee who could not be identified because he is not authorized to speak for his company said that such tags would be decommissioned before the customer left the store. But Albrecht responded that the tags would merely be placed in a dormant state and could be reawakened at any time, as it would be too expensive to use tags which could be deactivated permanently.
“You can’t put your clothing in the microwave to kill these chips, because it could catch fire,” she said.
Some attendees actually stopped to talk with the 14 protesters and present their case. An attendee who could not be identified because he is not authorized to speak for his employer spent nearly an hour talking to protesters and pointing out that RFID has good uses as well. “There’s potential for abuse in everything,” he said. “All of those retailers, all they care about is making sure they have the right products at the right time, and actually saving money.”
Police did not interfere with the protest at all. One off-duty NYPD officer who could not appear on camera for personal safety reasons showed his police ID and pointed out that it contains a tracking device which allows the officer to be located in the event of an emergency. Security staff spoke to Albrecht and told her that they agreed with the protest, she said.
The trouble with databases is that despite every possible precaution, they can fall into the wrong hands. These databases will be an inviting target for today’s criminals, for whom obtaining data is the first step to committing a crime. In addition, once such a database is created, the tracking will inevitably follow. Government will be unable to resist having yet another way to track, monitor and control people, built by hapless companies who are just trying to save a few bucks.
Video of some of the protest follows: