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‘Companies, govts want to track people through tagged clothes to make a profit’

Published time: August 29, 2014 13:25
A memorabilia jersey of German national soccer team showing four stars, symbolizing the number of reached World Cup championships, is seen at an Adidas retailer in Frankfurt July 14, 2014. (Reuters / Ralph Orlowski)

Companies put RFID tags into clothing so they can potentially be tracking a person wearing, for example, a tagged shirt every time he or she walks in front of a device that can read them, consumer privacy expert Liz McIntyre told RT.

On August 28, Deutsche Welle revealed the scandalous fact that sports giant Adidas equipped German national team's jerseys with a tracking tag, and was selling these jerseys in its stores. The device known as a Radio Frequency Identification, or RFID, chip is used to transfer or track data automatically via electromagnetic fields. The technology was previously used for logistics purposes, but now it is increasingly being applied in consumer products as well without customers' knowledge. Adidas has not yet made any statement concerning customers’ awareness of RFID tags and whether this also applies to other national team jerseys supplied by Adidas.

RT: Adidas says it can’t track customers with RFID tags used in their items. Can we trust this statement?

Liz McIntyre: No, we can’t trust this statement because we don’t have enough information. One thing that is very important with any kind of technology like this is for the company putting the tags on the clothing, they shouldn’t be doing this to begin with, but if they do, they need to be very transparent. They are not comfortable telling us what the tags are exactly like, where they are located, how many garments have been tagged.

RT: Was this move intentional and what are their specific motives behind it?

LM: Unfortunately, the consortium of the major corporations around the world and even governments are very interested in tracking people, and it’s all about profit. They figure if they can know everything about somebody – where they go, their habits, whom they know – then they can make money out of that.

RT: Is there a way a consumer can recognize a tracking tag in his or her new clothes?

LM: This is very difficult and one reason why over 40 of the world’s leading privacy organizations back in 2003 when we first realized companies were trying to put these tags and detectors in clothing, organizations came forward and said, “There should be a moratorium on item-level tagging” because these chips could be so small, they could be as small as a grain of sand, they can be hidden just anywhere – in shorts, in shoes, in the things we carry every day – and they can be even woven into clothing, into flexible labels. So a consumer could take these items home and now realize there is tagging there potentially tracking this person every time he or she walks in front of a device that can read them.

RT: The scandal can affect the company’s sales, since no one wants to be tracked. Do you think the test was worth risking?

LM: Unfortunately, a lot of companies are now [trying this] – they’re coming forward and tiptoeing into the market place, trying to figure out if consumers are going to accept this technology. They have had a very bad backlash in the past, and we can point to many examples. For example, Benetton back in 2002-03 tried to put these RFID tags in women’s underwear. The backlash was so negative and so hurtful to the company that they reversed their plans. Another company we have found trying to use this technology at the item level, they have basically backed down, realizing the consumers hate the idea of being tracked and traced. Nobody likes it.

RT: Can there be another implementation of those RFID tags without violating privacy rights?

LM: There are some reasons that companies could use RFID tags, and we have no problem if they want to use these tags to track the inventory, say, in warehouses. It is very efficient. You have to understand RFID tags are very good ways to track inventory, because unlike barcode where you have to have them just right in the scanner to read what the information is, RFID tags can be read right through boxes, purses, backpacks, they can be read through walls. So if you have a reader device in a warehouse, you can basically point the reader device anywhere you want and pick up these tags without to having actually open the box. You can count how many shirts are in particular box – you can even figure out what size, what colors you have. So for backroom inventory purposes it’s a very good technology, and we have no problem with that. Our issue is when these tags go home with consumers on things they wear and carry, these consumers can be tracked. These RFID tags have unique identification numbers and the plan is for every item on the planet to have one of these numbers on it. If you think about it, well, it’s just a number, there are a lot of things and they are just numbers. For example, social security numbers are just numbers, bank account numbers are just numbers, but we have the sense not to put them on our T-shirts and walk around with those because people could abuse that information about us. The same thing with these RFID tags who have unique numbers and can be linked to personal information about people. But even if they aren’t linked, the fact that, let’s say, this particular shirt has number 1234567, if that shirt is somehow identified and associated with a person, anytime this shirt shows up by a reader device hidden in a wall or a doorway – remember these devices can be anywhere – whenever this number shows up they can recognize, “Hey, there is the person wearing 1234567.”

So it’s a very invasive technology, and this is just the beginning. There are plans not just to have these tags readable but to be able to add information about them, we have seen patents from the major companies like IBM where they are planning actually to have units available and put them in shopping centers and other public places, and they call these units “people/person tracking units.” IBM spelled out ways in their patent documentation that we have in our books spy chips how they could track people in public spaces using the things they wear and carry. This is a very problematic technology, and we are calling to really to think very carefully about what they are doing and at the very least warn consumers and educate them a bit about the technology. I’m sure many people are taking these tags home in the things and in the shirts they are going to wear, and they probably have no idea that they should be removing those tags. That’s something that Adidas should take responsibility for before customers go home with them.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.