Wireless | The brave new world of RFID | Chemical Processing

Radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology, writes Agnes Shanley, is not only being evaluated or implemented by more companies for supply-chain management and security, it lets companies spy on employees or customers.

By Agnes Shanley

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Do you use an electronic toll-collection (ETC) card — perhaps E-Z-Pass in the Northeast, Texas' EZ or Toll Tag or one of the many systems available around the country? Here in the Prairie State, the I-Pass is certainly tempting, as the cold winds of January draw near. While the EZ elite zoom along their lanes, snug in heated cars, Luddite drivers fumble with iced-shut windows or doors, freeze while retrieving coins that missed the basket, or even worse, interact with toll collectors who would make Kafka wince, who couldn't manage a smile or a "good morning" on the sunniest of May days, much less a frigid Monday.

It's tempting, but, for now, I'll pass on the pass. Not that I have anything in particular to hide, but just knowing that my vehicle's whereabouts can be tracked smacks more of "Big Brother" than makes me comfortable.

That's the down side of radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology, which drives ETC and is being evaluated or implemented by more companies for supply-chain management and security. The same breakthrough that would permit companies to track a drug shipment or a bucket of paint from production floor to market could also allow them to spy on employees or customers. And, unlike biometrics or barcoding, RFID allows immediate, open-ended trace-and-trackability.

Last month, in Cambridge, Mass., a conference at MIT, whose Auto-ID Center has spawned key RFID innovations, provided an open forum for discussing the technology and its implications both positive and negative.

Katherine Albrecht, from Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering (CASPIAN), discussed the Orwellian potential of hidden tags and readers, massive data aggregation and the ability to track and profile large numbers of people, in a world where new inks and packaging systems could allow even individual soda cans and gum packages to be tagged.

She also mentioned cases in the U.S. and U.K. where retailers and manufacturers used Web cams and RFID to watch consumers. The concept of corporate executives sitting in the boardroom watching us troll the store aisles is rather disturbing. Can the devices be turned off before one reaches the fitting room? Retail advocates insist that they can be deactivated at the point of sale, or blocked, but a dash of skepticism might be wise.

Equally disturbing was a presentation by security consultant Richard Smith, who mentioned that Wal-Mart, whose plans to roll out a store-wide tagging platform by next year have been widely publicized, could also use the technology to check on its employees. A growing number of RFID vendors are targeting the employee-surveillance market.

In the name of convenience, Federal Express in Memphis, Tenn. is currently equipping some 200 couriers with an RFID armband featuring an automatic keyless entry and ignition system. Sure, it'll keep them from dropping their truck keys as they juggle packages but at what cost?

Also in the name of convenience, last month Applied Digital Solutions, Inc. of Palm Beach, Fla., unveiled "VeriPay," an RFID chip designed to be implanted under the skin to allow for automatic cash and credit transactions. The size of a rice grain, the device would be embedded in the right arm between elbow and shoulder, the company says. Gadflies point out that sophisticated thieves could intercept the devices' signals, while the more-primitive thugs could (ouch!) steal the devices the old fashioned way.

Despite these concerns, RFID offers chemical processing companies a strong tool for maintaining product safety, ensuring plant security and minimizing inventory. In fighting counterfeit drugs, a growing and serious problem for pharmaceutical manufacturers, the technology offers unparalleled traceability and convenience. Some pharmaceutical companies in Europe are already using RFID tags, and a growing number in the U.S. are evaluating them closely. The Healthcare Distribution Management Assn. has advocated that manufacturers and distributers use them to tag cases of product by next year and unit packages by 2007. The U.S. Food and Drug Admin. (FDA) has also lauded the technologies, which would allow a complete chain of control for each product, from the production plant and along the distribution chain.

Chemicals and process equipment manufacturers are also taking note, and the entire chemical processing community is studying RFID technology more closely. In an unusual application, St. Paul, Minn.-based Colder Products Co. is using RFID to help optimize fluid handling in "smart coupling" technology it introduced last June, to prevent misconnections that can result in plant accidents or ruined product. Software giant SAP, whose enterprise resource planning (ERP) software R/3 is widely used by the chemical industry, plans to incorporate RFID into R/3 in June 2004. Beta testing will reportedly begin in January 2004.

The future promises to bring more applications of RFID, and, with them, more-powerful and convenient tools. We'd be foolish not to embrace this technology, but we'd be even more foolish not to require proof, once it's established, that individual privacy will not be sacrificed. Until that proof comes, you'll find me in the slow toll lane.

Agnes Shanley is editor in chief for Pharmaceutical Manufacturing magazine. E-mail her at ashanley@putman.net.

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