Each year, businesses lose billions of dollars in inventory that simply disappears. While thieves account for some of the loss, a second category has troubled company executives more - merchandise that vanishes into a faulty record-keeping system. A technology called RFID, "Radio Frequency Identification," could put an end to such confusion.
Proponents of the technology have described it as a next-generation bar code, sure to ease inventory control and lower costs. Eventually, RFID tags could end up on everything from razor blades and books to clothes that send cleaning instructions to your washing machine.
But privacy advocates and civil libertarians say the technology designed for tracking widgets at a very short range can easily be adapted to tracking and spying on people, just as software "cookies" now track computer users' movements online. And as some of the world's largest companies prepare to shift their record keeping to the new model, there's a growing debate as to how - or whether - it should be regulated.
"We're at the very beginning stages of the uses of this technology, so it's not entirely clear how it will be used," says Deborah Bowen, a California state senator who may propose RFID legislation. "My general inclination is that it's better to design in safeguards before there's widespread deployment."
RFID depends on two components: a tiny transponder, or "tag," that includes a computer chip and radio antenna, and a reader. While a bar code must be scanned with a laser, the RFID tag only needs to pass near a reader, as far as several feet away. Already in use in toll routes and electronic door locks in the US and abroad, the reading device fires a burst of radio waves that turn the tag on. In turn, it transmits its data back to the reader. The data is then passed to a computer.
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