Adventures in Ethical Consumerism

Thursday, January 27, 2005

CASPIAN announces worldwide Tesco boycott

From CASPIAN press release:

CASPIAN (Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering) has launched a worldwide boycott of Tesco in response to the retailer's escalating use of RFID on consumer products. CASPIAN Founder and Director Katherine Albrecht made the announcement to millions of viewers watching BBC Newsnight, the popular UK news program, on Tuesday.

Tesco is the world's third largest retailer, with over 2,300 stores across Europe and Asia.

RFID stands for Radio Frequency Identification, a controversial technology that hooks miniature antennas up to tiny computer chips smaller than a grain of sand to track items at a distance. The technology raises privacy concerns because RFID tagged items can be monitored invisibly right through items consumers normally consider private, like clothing, purses, backpacks and wallets.

Albrecht outlined CASPIAN member objections to Tesco's expansion of its item-level RFID tagging trials, saying they "would involve potentially hundreds of thousands more shoppers... it essentially means that more people will be taking home items containing [RFID] spychips." She concluded, "that's simply unacceptable."

Newsnight correspondent Paul Mason said Tesco was taking the announcement of the boycott "seriously," and read a prepared statement from the retailer that was intended to assure consumers that the store did not have plans to track products after purchase.

Mason concluded that "all the big names in this [RFID] industry will be watching this battle very intently."

Basically, there are two kinds of RFID tags: active and passive.

Active ones do not excite my love of good technology. They are currently much bigger in size than the passive variety, but more importantly, active RFID tags are constantly transmitting their radio signals while drawing power from a little battery.

The passive tags do not require batteries as they are not continuously broadcasting a signal. These tags are activated by proximity to a scanner, more like scanning a barcode. The range within which a scanner communicates with a tag can be anything up to a few metres - possibly more. For me, their relative inactivity makes passive RFID tags less of a potential health risk for humans.

The current debate, however, is focused purely on privacy issues.

It's clear that widespread use of these tags, whether active or passive, could result in major loss of privacy for ordinary people. Even if Tesco or Gillette - or whoever is administering the tags - has a water-tight privacy policy, they would still have a responsibility to ensure that RFID is not exploited by criminals in the way that, for example, ATMs have been.

The Spychips: RFID Privacy Website has plenty more information. They have been calling for a boycott of Gillette since the company started putting RFID tags into some of their products and taking photos of people who pick them up! There is a website dedicated to the Gillette boycott here.

Personally, I've been boycotting Gillette for years; originally because of their animal testing policy (they have tried to clean up their act on that one), but more recently just because their products are full of seriously nasty ingredients. (See this from the Greenpeace Chemical Home website or the February edition of the Ecologist for more details).

Here is Tesco's take on the subject. Their focus is purely on how much of a benefit RFID is in terms of stock control. This is, of course, presented as a benefit to the consumer and not just the retail chain itself.

This article from C-Net news gives a pretty good deconstruction of the issues surrounding RFID tagging in general, including some smart recommendations for helping to safeguard people's rights.

Visit the Boycott Tesco website.


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