The transcript of the adjournment debate on Information Technology/Retail Crime on Tuesday 27th January 2004 is now available online via Hansard.
This short debate was quite useful, but there were a couple of errors which crept in on both sides:
Mr. Tom Watson (West Bromwich, East) (Lab):
"Radio frequency identification tags are tiny microchips, little bigger than a grain of sand, which can contain information from the price of goods in a shop to a person's entire medical records. They have been proclaimed as the global successor to the 30-year-old barcode, but they are much more sophisticated. They can not only store much more data, such as a product's expiry date, colour, packaging, origin and destination, but transmit it through the airwaves. Crucial to their operation is a microscopic antenna, invisible to the naked eye, which allows the chip to be read by a scanning device"
Whilst it is true that contactless smart cards and the more expensive, re-useable, battery powered active RFID tags might have enough memory capacity to store medical records or product details on the RFID tag chip itself, that is not the concept behind the ultra cheap, disposable Electronic Product Code "internet of things" passive RFID tags which are causing all our privacy worries, whilst promising a more efficient logistics chain. These have an individual serial number, and, in the more sophisticated ones, a "kill" code and/or password to deactivate or re-programme them. Any other product data etc. is stored outside the tiny chips themsleves in other computer systems, which use the EPC serial number as the key to look up the appropriate data, and to track the tag past each reader.
The chips are tiny, but the antennas are not, c.f. our photos of the RFID tags used by Tesco and Marks & Spencer
"The Minister for Energy, E-Commerce and Postal Services (Mr. Stephen Timms):
"No one, least of all in retailing, wants negative responses from customers. That affords some confidence that retailers will not want to risk giving rise to the sort of fears that my hon. Friend mentioned. There has been one protest here, against the "Inform" project at Tesco. It was attended by four people?three adults and a child?suggesting that the great majority of customers recognise that the technology is being used to improve stock management rather than something more nefarious. "
There were actually two protests outside Tescos, one in Cambridge where the Gillette razor trials were held and one in Sandhurst where the DVD trials were held.
Due to the secrecy surrounding the Tesco trials, the vast majority of their customers had no idea that they were taking place, so claiming that these customers recognise anything about the technology is political spin.
"Best practice examples are already emerging in the introduction of new technologies. Marks and Spencer, to which my hon. Friend referred, went to great lengths to explain to staff and customers what the trial of RFID tags on garments was about. All the tags were clearly identified and removed at the point of sale. Where the tag was attached to a wrapped item, customers were offered an alternative bag before leaving the premises. The tags could be read only with a Marks and Spencer reader."
Although Marks & Spencer were much more open about their RFID label trial in their small High Wycombe store than Tescos, when we purchased an item from this store, we had to hunt around for the explanatory leaflets, and the RFID label tag was not removed upon purchase.
It looks as if the National Consumer Council forum which Stephen Timms mentioned is on February 5th, but will be held in private under the Chatham House rule i.e.
When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information recieved, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed; nor may it be mentioned that the information was received at a meeting of the institute