FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

May 11, 2004


Wal-Mart Tries New PR Spin to Accompany Item-level RFID Tagging
"Selling the technology with partial truths is unethical," says CASPIAN

Despite widespread consumer opposition, Wal-Mart began item-level RFID (radio frequency identification) tagging of consumer goods last week as part of a trial in Texas. In an apparent effort to minimize the backlash to its use of RFID tags, Wal-Mart has also begun a public relations campaign to promote the technology that some are calling unethical.

Shoppers at seven Dallas-Ft. Worth area Wal-Mart stores can walk into the consumer electronics department and find Hewlett-Packard products for sale with live RFID tags attached. Wal-Mart's public statements appear to leave open the possibility that other goods could be tagged with RFID as well.

The giant retailer's decision to tag individual items on the store floor violates a call for a moratorium on such tagging issued last November by over 40 of the world's most respected privacy and civil liberties organizations. The move has sparked sharp criticism by the privacy community.

"Wal-Mart is blatantly ignoring the research and recommendations of dozens of privacy experts," says  Katherine Albrecht, Founder and Director of CASPIAN (Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering). "When the world's largest retailer adopts a technology with chilling societal implications, and does so irresponsibly, we should all be deeply concerned."

In addition to violating the call for a moratorium on RFID-tagged items in stores, Wal-Mart has begun a consumer education campaign that CASPIAN is calling unethical.

"Read the FAQs at the Wal-Mart corporate web site and you'll find plenty of half truths," Albrecht says. "They call it consumer education, but the omissions and spin make it feel more like a calculated disinformation campaign."

Albrecht provides the example of Wal-Mart's statement that RFID tags in its stores are harmless since they contain nothing more than identification numbers. "While technically that's true, Wal-Mart fails to explain what it means for items to carry remote-readable unique ID numbers. It's like saying someone's social security number is 'only' a number, so sharing it with perfect strangers should be of no concern."

Albrecht explains that many major retailers today routinely link shoppers' identity information from credit, ATM and "loyalty" cards with product bar code numbers to record individuals' purchases over time. "If nothing is done to stop it, the same will happen with the unique RFID numbers on products. This means that if retailers can read an RFID tag on a product they previously sold you, they can identify you as you walk in the door and even pinpoint your location in their store as you shop," she said.

Albrecht also criticizes Wal-Mart for failing to tell consumers of the retailer's long-term goals for RFID. "The industry plan is to put an RFID tag on every product on Earth to identify and locate them at any time, anywhere. Wal-Mart is taking the first steps to creating a society where everything could be surveilled at all times. A shopper would hardly learn this by reading their website."

With potentially billions of dollars riding on RFID, global corporations are eager to see it deployed. However, consumer acceptance has proved to be an obstacle.

Procter & Gamble's own research suggests that 78 percent of consumers surveyed reacted negatively to the technology on privacy grounds and did not find industry reassurances compelling. Another industry study, published in January 2003, found similar misgivings among focus groups of consumers in the U.S., Germany, France, Japan and the UK.

The most publicized trial of item-level RFID tagging to date, Metro-AG's "Future Store" in Rheinberg, Germany, met with massive consumer outcry earlier this year, culminating in a protest outside the store.

"Wal-Mart may soon be facing a similar backlash," said Albrecht.


CASPIAN (Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering) is a grass-roots consumer group fighting retail surveillance schemes since 1999, and item-level RFID tagging since 2002. With members in all 50 U.S. states and over 30 nations across the globe, CASPIAN seeks to educate consumers about marketing strategies that invade their privacy and to encourage privacy-conscious shopping habits across the retail spectrum.

CASPIAN is guided by free market principles. Rather than look to lawmakers for solutions to the consumer privacy problem, we call on consumers to reject privacy-invading practices so that they fail in the marketplace.

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