October 15, 2003

Marks & Spencer Moves Forward with RFID Trials
CASPIAN says, "M & S responsible, but setting a dangerous precedent"

British retailer Marks & Spencer is setting a dangerous precedent by moving forward with an RFID item-level tagging trial, says CASPIAN (Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering). Starting this week, Marks & Spencer's High Wycombe store will offer men's suits, shirts and ties carrying large lilac hang tags that are equipped with RFID devices.

"We were impressed that Marks & Spencer contacted us several weeks prior to the trial to discuss the privacy implications of the technology and took many of our concerns into account," says CASPIAN Founder and Director Katherine Albrecht. "Marks & Spencer is known for being very conscientious when it comes to consumer issues so we were disappointed that they chose to move ahead with the trial. While they are acting far more responsibly with the technology than we would have anticipated, our concern is that it might encourage less responsible organizations to begin RFID tagging of consumer goods."

Albrecht points out that Marks & Spencer is a socially responsible retailer that goes out of its way to consider consumer and environmental issues when setting policies. For example, Marks & Spencer only uses free-range eggs in its food products, and they decided to stop selling genetically modified food when the biotech industry couldn't prove that the benefits outweighed any risks.

"We are hopeful that Marks & Spencer will also decide to discontinue RFID item-level tagging in the same spirit," says Albrecht. "But they have devoted much thought to how they are using RFID, and they fully acknowledge the risks involved."

There are several ways Marks & Spencer is making their trial as privacy friendly as possible:

  • They are not hiding or embedding RFID devices in clothing. The devices are incorporated into conspicuous hang tags that are clearly labeled as being RFID enabled.

  • Customers will be given the option to have the tags clipped off at the point of purchase.

  • Customers will not lose any benefits if they decide to have the tags removed, such as the right to return purchases under the retailer's generous return policy.Customers will not be forced to pay a premium or be subject to any inconvenience to have the tags clipped off.

  • There will be no active RFID reader devices in the store during normal business hours so consumers will not be subjected to the potential health effects of the electromagnetic radiation the readers emit. The RFID readers will be rolled into the sales area after hours for inventory purposes.

  • RFID reader devices will not be used at the point of sale. This detail is crucial, as it means that unique RFID item numbers will not be captured and linked with customer information.

While Marks & Spencer has taken steps to protect consumer privacy, Albrecht fears that other retailers like Wal-Mart, Asda, Tesco and Target will not be so careful with their implementation of the technology. "Many stores won't even acknowledge their RFID trials much less give consumers proper notice." She points to the example of UK retailer Tesco's use of "smart shelves" to secretly photograph consumers who picked up RFID-tagged Gillette Mach3 razor blades.

"We stand firm in our opposition to item-level RFID tagging of consumer products and encourage consumers not to purchase them. But we do want to recognize Marks & Spencer's responsible attitude toward the trial. Other retailers have simply chosen to ignore the serious privacy and health concerns of their customers," says Albrecht. "We are still hopeful that Marks & Spencer will decide to drop RFID item-level tagging plans as a matter of principle, just as they dropped GM produce."


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2003-2007 Katherine Albrecht and Liz McIntyre. All Rights Reserved.