Metro Future Store
The METRO "Future Store"
Scandal: The "Undead Machine"
The METRO Future Store has boasted for some time about its unique RFID tag "deactivator" that can supposedly disable tags before consumers leave the store. The idea is that deactivated tags will be impossible for anyone to read outside of the store, so a consumer's purchases cannot be remotely identified after purchase.
problem is it doesn't work.
There was so much hype around METRO's "deactivator" that it was one of the main things I wanted to see on my tour of the METRO Future Store. Imagine my shock at discovering this device does NOT deactivate the most crucial element of the tags!
shows what the deactivation kiosk looks like.
METRO's Deactivation Claim
Here is what METRO promises in the brochure it gives to customers:
These claims about the "De-Activator" kiosk
are grossly misleading. While the kiosk does overwrite the barcode
information, it leaves key identifying information on the tags "live."
Read on to see how.
The Deactivator that Doesn't Deactivate
In this photo, Dr. Gerd Wolfram, Metro's RFID Project Leader (in brown), shows us how the deactivator overwrites the programmable bar code information contained on each RFID tag with zeros.
I spend some time staring at the screen, waiting for the tag's unique ID number to overwrite as well, since that's this data that poses the greatest privacy risk to consumers. After nothing happens for a few awkward moments, Dr. Wolfram explains to me that Metro's technology does not allow for this number to be overwritten.
Surrounded by METRO executives, I am waiting for the deactivator to do what it claims and delete the unique information from their item-level RFID tags. I soon discover that the tags cannot be deactivated by the "Easy Deactivation" kiosk after all.
Evidence of the "Undead" RFID Tag
Below is an image of the deactivator kiosk screen after an RFID tag has supposedly been "deactivated."
The string of numbers across the top represents the read-writable portion of the tag. Before placing tagged products on the shelf, METRO programs the products' bar code numbers into this portion of the tag. Like a bar code, this data is not unique from item to item (i.e., all Pantene shampoo bottles have the same "barcode" number programmed into this part of their tags).
of "deactivating" the tag involves simply overwriting this "soft-coded"
barcode data with zeros. But the bar code number was never the real
problem, since a generic bar code number does not allow for the linking
of individual items with
consumers. The real problem is the string of numbers BELOW, where the
tag's unique, hard-coded ID number
resides. This number can still be read, even after this kiosk has done
Screen shot of METRO's so-called "deactivation kiosk." This shows what the screen looks like moments after a
shopper presses the "deactivate" button on the touch screen.
Dr. Wolfram, the Metro research executive in charge of the Future Store project, has confirmed that the deactivation kiosk cannot overwrite, kill, or otherwise deactivate this hard-coded tag data.
This means that anyone with a 13.56 MHZ reader can capture the unique tag information -- even after the customer buys the product, believes she has "deactivated" the tag, and leaves the store.
Representing that the RFID tags have been killed when they have, in fact, not been, is far worse than simply not killing the tags at all. Providing consumers with a false (and potentially dangerous) sense of security is, in essence, fraudulent.
Tag Claims from METRO
The Spychips website is a project of CASPIAN, Consumers
Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering.
© 2003-2006 Katherine Albrecht and Liz McIntyre. All Rights Reserved.
Photographs © Peter Ehrentraut, FoeBuD e.V., used with permission.