February 5, 2004
German RFID Scandal: Hidden Devices, Unkillable
Tags Found in METRO Future Store
Germans say, "Nein! We wont be your versuchskaninchen"
[Update: CASPIAN has posted a 12-page
expose on the METRO store scandal at:
"We won't be your versuchskaninchen." That's the message German
privacy advocates are sending to executives at the METRO Future Store
in Rheinberg, Germany after discovering RFID devices hidden in the store's
loyalty cards. They also found that RFID tags on products sold at the
store cannot be completely deactivated after purchase, despite METRO's
"Versuchskaninchen" is the German
word for guinea pig, which is how German consumers feel METRO and its
partners have treated them since opening the Future Store last year to
test experimental RFID applications on live shoppers.
The revelations came just one day after Katherine Albrecht, founder and
director of CASPIAN (Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and
Numbering) toured the Future Store with a delegation of privacy experts
from German advocacy group FoeBud, who sponsored her visit.
"We were shocked to find RFID tags in METRO's 'Payback' loyalty card,"
said Albrecht, after FoeBuD tested the cards with an RFID reader and discovered
the tag. "The card application form, brochures, and signage at the store
made no mention of the embedded technology and METRO executives spent
several hours showing us the store without telling us about it."
"In retrospect, it's no wonder store employees appeared nervous when we
asked to take a few of the cards with us," she added.
Vendors of RFID-enabled loyalty cards promote them as a way for supermarkets
to identify shoppers remotely as they enter the store, using details of
their identity and purchase history to pitch products to them and to track
their movements and activities within the store. Prior to the METRO discovery,
no major retailer had publicly admitted to using such cards.
In addition to the cards, Albrecht discovered that METRO cannot deactivate
the unique identification number contained in RFID tags in products it
sells. The use of unique, item-level ID numbers is one of the key
privacy concerns surrounding the use of RFID tags on consumer goods.
"Customers are misled into believing that the tags can be killed at a
special deactivation kiosk, but the kiosk only rewrites a portion of the
tag, while leaving the unique ID number intact," she said.
Outraged German citizens are calling on METRO to put an immediate end
to the trials.
"We are deeply disappointed at the METRO executives. They talked of an
open dialog while hiding important facts from us," said Rena Tangens of
FoeBuD. "We are calling for an immediate moratorium on further RFID testing
as it is clear that METRO is not handling the technology responsibly."
Evidence of the RFID tag in METRO's "Payback" loyalty card, along with
evidence of the incomplete deactivation of product tags, can be found
on FoeBuD's website at http://www.foebud.org/rfid/.
[Update: CASPIAN has posted a 12-page expose
of the METRO store at: http://www.spychips.com/metro/overview.html]