Customer Service Surveillance


Is your shopping bag bugged? An article in The Guardian this weekend reveals that it might be. Skip the opening paragraphs on loyalty cards and check out the lengthy exploration of Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) chips:

[I]f the ultimate idea is to tag every sold thing, items could be "seen" in your possession. And that's where privacy campaigners start to worry. Because then you could be telling anyone who has the right kind of scanning device—from burglars to the government—what you have bought, where from, how much it cost, and anything else that might be added to an item's database entry, such as who bought it. In this scenario, individuals could be identified by what they wear. On top of which, retailers could monitor your behaviour in relation to their goods. Did you try on a garment? How long did you hold that product? Are you trying to steal? Now does that sound a bit like surveillance? Now would it worry you if this technology were already being used at several of your favourite stores?

As the article goes on to observe, it is, as part of an anti-shoplifting system that stores a photograph of every customer who picks up a pack of razors off the shelf.


NEXT: (Capitalist) Pigs in Spaaaaace

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  1. Consumers only have the choice to avoid shops doing this kind of surveillance if 1) they have practical alternatives and 2) they know it’s happening.

  2. Tom –
    Retailers may have it if you give it to them. Reread the excerpted quotation, though.

  3. It seems to me that this is hysterical overreaction to something that’s not even widely used yet. Right now, the proposed use is for inventory and to make check-out easier. I don’t think it’s fair to slam the technology for what it *could* be used for, when what it probably *will* be used for promises tremendous savings and higher productivity.

  4. I agree with JenL on this… just about every story I go to has those little stickers with the metal strips on the inside. Some are even disguised to look like sales stickers. Most folks probably don’t even realize this is going on, so how can they do anything about it?

  5. “If consumers don’t like it, they won’t shop there or buy it. Let the market decide”

    A statement I tend to agree with 99.9% of the time. However, I do not like “loyalty” cards offered by most major grocery store chains, so if I don’t like it, I am now left to just one grocery store in my city to shop. Once it goes to loyalty cards, I’ll have to pay the inflated fee of not participating. According to articles in the paper, op-ed pieces, the feelings of friends, family, co-workers, and random people I have encountered, no one likes them but use them with fake personas, can the free market really fix this behavioral response to an unwanted and undersirable service? Of course, in another region of the US, maybe these cards are really damn popular and that area is also served by the same chains.

  6. Kev-
    I’d think before it becomes ubiquitous is precisely the time to get concerned, or at least informed, about this sort of thing. It’d be a shame for companies to find out that consumers are freaked out by this only after they’ve spend megabucks chipping their entire inventories.

  7. Julian,
    I understood the implication that with RFIDs anyone (not just retailers) with access to RFID equipment can now have that same information.
    I suppose my point was, they could also have the same info by merely getting it from said retailer, most likely available for a small fee. My apologies for the lack of clarity on my part.

    On an off-topic note though, for roughly the past 12 – 13 years I’ve been hearing various stories about data mining & information being assembled on me by various (mostly nefarious) commercial entities. They know what I buy, where I buy it, etc.
    While I have absolutely no doubt that this indeed does go on, what have they been doing with all of this detailed info ? I mean for all the data they’ve collected on me they still can’t figure out that an address with “#9A” in it is an apartment and I probably don’t need to refinance or get new siding. I still get the same old junk mail I always did offering products I have positively no interest in or have any need for (for some reason O.B. sends me some free samples about once a year).

  8. Most stores make it pretty clear their product is tagged for antitheft purposes. The warnings themselves are part of the deterrent. I’ve left the store a few times when the sales clerk forgot to deactivate the tag. The alarms went off, I kept walking and no one chased me down. I gather the frequency of this type of thing must be high enough that it gets ignored in the same manner as squawking car alarms.

    To the extent that retailers and manufacturers want to prevent theft and/or know how much of their product is in the store, more power to them. I don’t think they will use it to spy on customers after they’ve left the premises, which would be difficult to do anyway for technical reasons (RFID’s only work from a short range because they’re powered externally). Nothing wrong with people being aware of it, because I do think customers would definitely not like the more sinister uses possible, but my fear is they will throw the baby out with the bathwater, as it is, by misunderstanding what the technology is being used for or is capable of.

    Good point from Tom T – I would like it personally if the market had a little more information on me. I keep getting offers for the same credit cards I already own (i.e. from the same exact bank) who apparently bought my name from some list without checking to see if I was already a customer. My wife and I just had a baby so we’re getting all the free baby swag from diaper and formula companies, along with the same stuff offered by friends of ours whose kids have just entered high school. Apparently they haven’t figured out that their kids aren’t in diapers anymore. Recently I discovered my credit report shows an ‘extra’ car payment – one for Ford Credit and one for Ford Motor Credit Corporation, with the same payment and loan balance. The free market’s ability to track my identity is surprisingly poor – which should give pause to anyone who thinks the government will do a better job of it.

    BTW, speaking of credit reports, has it occurred to any of the libertarian privacy advocates out there that the most reliable way of tracking you as an individual (because to be sure there are many people out there with the same names) is through a number mandatorially assigned to us all by the government? Abolish the SSN and you’ll eliminate the most conventient means for tracking people privately as well.

  9. Funny to see this after I watched Minority Report last night on HBO.

    This is an interesting topic that treads the lines of free market and consumer privacy. Really the only answer to putting a stop to companies using something like RFID is to educate consumers through the media and internet. Most people don’t even know what RFID is, much less what companies are using it.

    These seem fairly analogous to spyware embedded in software applications. Consumers are usually wary of companies that use spyware and avoid their software, or use third party tools to disable the spyware with hope that the core application will continue to function properly. Of course, that assumes that the consumer is aware that the notion of spyware exists in the first place, and secondly that the product uses such a thing.

    Speaking of this, does anyone know if there is something that “kills” or jams an RFID? I’m not an engineer, but talk about a possible money-maker there.

  10. Also, check out the companies and government agencies involved in the autoidcenter, and their “confidential” documents:

  11. Maybe I’m just an eternal optimist, but this just sounds like another oportunity for some fun hacking/subversion. Bring it on!

  12. i’m going to make a fortune selling rfid jammers!!!! yippee!!!!

  13. Discussed this topic in the office (next to the water cooler) this morning shortly after reading it on Reason. A Chem Eng mentioned that anti-static spray (for clothes) could possibly be a quick and dirty solution to jamming the RFID’s. He is now eager to find a store with these devices to check out his hypothesis.

  14. If consumers don’t like it, they won’t shop there or buy it. Let the market decide. Like everything else, privacy is a commodity. I guess ironically tho, privacy doesn’t allow perfect information, which is a prerequisite for efficient market functionality.

  15. Um… As an avid user of a debit card, don’t reatilers already have most of this information ?

  16. According to what I’ve read, magnets won’t jam them. I don’t know about the anti-static spray, but even if it works you’d need to get it on the thing. Which you can’t do if it’s buried in a boot heel, the cover of a book, or similar. Microwaving it will work, but it also can cause the thing to explode. Apparently the best way is just to physically damage it.

    Of course, another thing would be to have 1000 phony RFID chips embedded in your various pieces of clothing. Let them sort the real signals from the bad.

  17. These tracking devices used in products are easy to
    disable right in the shop with a litlle tiny microwave pulse produced with a little tiny gizmo.
    ‘Won’t get in to details how to build such,someone with a little know how in the microwave stuff could build it.
    Such device could be a hole in the market by the way…….loads of money could be earned with selling anti spy equipment.

    It must be very frustrating for the ones who are on the spying side of the story that it’s so damned easy to disable superduper hightech spy stuff with low tech antispy apparatus hehehehe.

    works anitime anywhere….resistance is futile hehehe.

    secretary general of SSS

  18. More on RFID jamming/disabeling…..

    It is a known fact that the equipment used for RFID is EMP sensitive,
    likely a near by lightningstrike could damage it beond repair.
    this is due to microwave harmonics that do go along with the general pulse envelope
    of the strike.

    Now how to disable by emulating this harmonic component.
    start with building a microwave pulse generator wich could consist
    of a avelange-diode and a little powersuorce that will feed the diode
    with just enough power to fire several pulses per sec.
    Build a piece of amplifying cirquitry to amplify the pulses to feed a
    small microwave triode with them.
    Build a miniature invertor and tube powersupply for the tube in use.

    If done the right way then all of the cirquitry and tube and the power-supply will
    fit in the casing of a tourch like the famous Maglite D4 model or even smaller.

    When not in the possesion of these items,and wanting inmediate releaf,
    one could put all the mergandise bought in a microwave
    oven for a split econd and that will irradicate all the embeded trackers/tracers.
    In the case of shoes and alike stuff where the tracers could be cast in the
    rubber or plastic parts,this would be the easiest option.

    Secretary General of SSS

  19. Due to some glitch not all of the post did upload that well.
    Here is the missing part containing a warnig about the use of the jammer mentioned in the previous post.

    warning: do not use it on or near electronic mergandise by the fact it
    will damage the mergandise it self and therefore make it worthless!
    in these case the trackers/tracers/ID-s need to be removed by hand after locating them.

    Secretary General of SSS

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