By Mary Starrett

June 11, 2003

Starting this week, the nation's largest discount retailer will quietly begin selling tracking-chipped products to clueless shoppers. The first volley in their war against our privacy is set to start at their Brockton, Massachusetts store.

Wal-Mart will put Radio Frequency I.D. sensors on shelves stocked with RFID-tagged Gillette products, but they'd rather you didn't know about it, because, hey, you might not like it, and then you might make noise and then they'd have a big PR mess on their hands.

You might even stop buying Gillette products or, say, refuse to shop at Wal-Mart.

These chips, researched at M.I.T.'s Auto-ID Center are about the size of a grain of sand. Chipsters say the technology will only be used to help retailers keep track of inventory - like bar codes. But privacy-loving consumers question the very concept of a device that sends out radio waves to "readers" that not only identify the article, but where and with whom it's going.

The Big Brother implications of this thing need little hyping to get your skin crawling.

Wal-Mart's putting the pressure on its top 100 suppliers to make sure their inventory is all chipped by the end of next year.

But why start this in Brockton, Mass?

Could it be because the store's customers are typically lower income minorities who'd be less likely to be aware of the tracking devices, and even less likely to make a fuss about them?

Their thinking? Let's foist it on folks who're too concerned about paying the electric bill to be aware of these types of issues.

Retailers are SUPPOSED to alert their customers to the tracking chips and offer to "kill" the tags at the checkout counter.

Don't count on it, because what you don't know won't hurt you, right? And to PROVE those RFID tags won't be "killed" at the cash register one of the ways they're planning on convincing you, the shopper that these tags are A-OK is by touting how "hassle-free" returns will be. Huh? If the tags are supposedly turned off at purchase, how can they be read after the item's brought back to the store? Just one of the myriad lies you'll be told about this technology.

Are we to expect that in addition to being asked the "paper or plastic" question we'll get an option on whether the RFID tags are left on or turned off? Not only will consumers be witnessing the death throes of privacy, but it's going to cost them. Currently, the chips cost about 60 cents each. Add that to the cost of each and every item that uses this Orwellian technology. Gillette and Wal-Mart are only the pioneers here, the stated plan is to affix each item produced on the planet with RFID tags. Each pack of gum, each roll of film, each bottle of Merlot.

So what's a freedom-loving shopper to do?

Fortunately for us, there's a really smart lady finishing up a Ph.D. at Harvard. She started a group that's bellowing out the urgency of fighting this technology; her name is Katherine Albrecht and she's founder of CASPIAN (Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion And Numbering). Albrecht's CASPIAN has proposed a piece of federal legislation called "RFID RIGHT TO KNOW ACT OF 2003". It's a law that would let consumers know which products had tracking chips attached to them. In short, the proposed bill would amend the Fair Packaging and Labeling Program by adding language that requires manufacturers to state (in a conspicuous location) that the package contains a radio frequency identification tag that can transmit unique identification information to a "reader" device both before and AFTER it's purchased(!).

This is where you come in.

The bill needs a sponsor.

Maybe YOUR Congressional Representative would like to go on record as having helped stop this assault on our privacy. Forward this article to him/her and tell them the entire text of the bill can been seen at

Will you make it a point to email, call or fax your representative today, before our Big Brother gets any bigger? Do it NOW before the lobbyists and big money special interests get to them and convince Congress these RFID chips are consumer-friendly!

And while you're at it, why not tell the suits at Wal-Mart and Gillette (and Home Depot, Proctor and Gamble and Johnson & Johnson, too, by the way) that from here on out you wouldn't go near their stores or their products with a ten foot pole.

It works. Remember back a few months when I told you how Italian clothing company Benetton had chipped their Sisely line of clothes and was all set to roll out the garments with RFID tracking devices? Well your outrage and feedback caused them to put the scheme on hold.

Let's make sure the behemoth Wal-Mart is similarly put on notice. (By the way, IBM's planning to add RFID to it's products; so if Wal-Mart manages to sneak this past us, all bets are off and then every corporate giant will be able to inflict this chilling, tracking/monitoring horror on us.)

If RFID gets off the ground as planned, that would make George Orwells' predictions off by just 20 years. It's up to us.

© 2003 Mary Starrett - All Rights Reserved