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Scandal: Wal-Mart, P&G Involved in Secret RFID Testing

American consumers used as guinea pigs for controversial technology

Wal-Mart and Procter & Gamble conducted a secret RFID trial involving Oklahoma consumers earlier this year, the Chicago Sun Times revealed on Sunday. Customers who purchased P&G's Lipfinity brand lipstick at the Broken Arrow Wal-Mart store between late March and mid-July unknowingly left the store with live RFID tracking devices embedded in the packaging. Wal-Mart had previously denied any consumer-level RFID testing in the United States.

"It proves what we've been saying all along," says Katherine Albrecht, Founder and Director of Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering (CASPIAN). "Wal-Mart, Procter & Gamble and others have experimented on shoppers with controversial spy chip technology and tried to cover it up. Consumers and members of the press should be upset to learn that they've been lied to."

The Sun Times also reported that a live video camera trained on the shelf allowed Procter & Gamble employees, sometimes hundreds of miles away, to observe the Lipfinity display and consumers interacting with it.

"This trial is a perfect illustration of how easy it is to set up a secret RFID infrastructure and use it to spy on people," says Albrecht. "The RFID industry has been paying lip service to privacy concerns, calling for notice, choice and control. But companies like P&G, Wal-Mart and Gillette have already violated all three tenets when they thought nobody was looking. This is exactly why we oppose item-level RFID tagging and have called for mandatory labeling legislation."

The Lipfinity tests were conducted while Wal-Mart and Procter & Gamble were sponsors of the MIT Auto-ID Center, a consortium of over 100 corporations and government agencies founded in 1999. Auto-ID Center activities were supervised by a Board of Overseers, which included both Wal-Mart and Procter & Gamble, along with the Uniform Code Council (UCC), the standards body that oversees the bar code. The UCC (along with EAN International) took over commercial functions from the Auto-ID center on November 1 of this year.

"Given the players, the Wal-Mart Lipfinity trial probably isn't an isolated incident," says CASPIAN spokeswoman Liz McIntyre. "UCC and Auto-ID Center documents suggest that other products, including Huggies baby wipes, Pantene shampoo, Caress soap, Purina Dog Chow and Right Guard deodorant were also slated for live RFID field trials. Coca Cola, Kraft, Kodak and Johnson & Johnson products are also implicated. However, it may be difficult for consumers to learn the extent of those trials in the current climate of secrecy and denials."

Disclosure of the Broken Arrow trial is only the latest scandal to hit the privacy plagued RFID industry. Early this year, CASPIAN called for a worldwide boycott of Italian clothing manufacturer Benetton when the company announced plans to equip women's undergarments with live RFID tracking tags (see http://www.boycottbenetton.org). This summer, CASPIAN uncovered an RFID-enabled Gillette "smart shelf" in a Brockton, Massachusetts Wal-Mart and helped disclose Gillette's scheme to secretly photograph consumers picking up Mach3 razor blades in UK Tesco stores (see http://www.boycottgillette.com/spychips.html). The group also revealed confidential industry plans to "pacify" consumers and "neutralize opposition" in the hope that consumers will be "apathetic" and "resign themselves to the inevitability" of RFID product tagging (see: http://www.nocards.org/press/pressrelease07-07-03_1.shtml).

CASPIAN encourages consumers to contact Wal-Mart, P&G and the UCC to voice their opinion about the use of RFID spy chips in consumer products. Contact information for these companies is provided on the group's RFID website at http://www.spychips.com.

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