Weightless flame balls

Crash Bonsai

Location, location, location — part. 7

According to Ephraim Schwartz’s latest column, Gillette is engaging in the world’s biggest-yet experiment in location-based sensing:

Following a pilot program, Gillette announced its intention to buy 500,000,000 (that’s not a typo — not half a million but half a billion) RFID tags, at 10 cents a piece and to tag every pallet and every carton coming out of its distribution centers. By the way, the company selling the tags to Gillette is Alien Technology, in Morgan Hill, Calif.

Imagine the benefits of tracking those pallets, and the cases on the pallets, from manufacturing to the point of sale. Gillette will be able to reduce losses from out-of-stock, stolen or lost products, and as the company understands the power of this tracking capability, it will increase revenues by leveraging inventory information into smarter marketing to the retailers. …

RFID tags will allow a computer to identify any object, anywhere, automatically and — here’s the scary part — will allow a product, in essence, to sense the real world on its own.

Two points. These sensors are only 10 cents a piece? At this rate, soon everything you wear, eat, drive and read will be plastered with these things — and you won’t be able to remove them because you won’t even know where they are. I predict someone’s going to invent personal RF-jamming devices that emit pseudorandom fuzzy noise to confuse the zillions of corporate sensors trying to track your whereabouts. At least I hope someone’s working on those jammers — because at this rate, we’re going to need them soon.

Oh, yeah — the second point? The name of the company who made the RFID tags is “Alien Technology”. Love it.

(Update: There are some excellent informational updates in the comments to this item … check them out! Chris Walsh notes that Gillette has said that, based on buying patterns they’ve observed in the past, anyone carrying more than three or four packs may be stealing them. Andrea notes that The Economist wrote a story about the Gillette experiment; the story also notes the freakish privacy implications of this, and reports that some makers of RFID tech are responding to it:

Its chip specifications include a “kill command” that can permanently disable the tag. The centre is working on a privacy policy, a draft of which gives the customer the option to kill tags at the checkout.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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