It starts innocently enough. You buy a sweater that has sewn into its sleeve a tiny computer chip loaded with info about the style, colour and size of the item. Within moments of the scanning of the sweater, the store orders a new one and you walk out happy with your purchase.
But as the technology advances, your sweater begins to say more and more about you.
Before you know it, the 1KB of memory has increased to contain your name, purchasing history and even your credit card information.
You walk back into the store, and the chip, which can never be turned off, is reactivated by a transmitter. Everything about you and your shopping habits is laid bare in the store's computer databases.
If that seems too farfetched, think again.
Benetton, the Venice-based clothier known for its out-there advertising campaigns, announced recently that it has plans to embed such "smart tags" into its garments at 5,000 of its stores in 120 countries by 2004.
But that was before some negative publicity and a consumer backlash forced Benetton to issue a statement Friday, April 4, saying the company has put the project on hold.
Federico Sartor, chief press officer at Benetton, tells NOW over the phone from Italy that the company will know by the end of the year whether it's moving forward.
"It's too early to see the benefits," he says now.
Privacy concerns arose last month when Royal Philips division Philips Semiconductors announced that it'd joined with Lab ID and Psion Teklogix to create "the most comprehensive item-level tagging implementation" of radio-frequency identification tags (RFID, or smart tags) for Benetton's Sisley line of clothes.
RFID tags are computer chips about the size of a grain of sand. They're undetectable by the wearer and cannot be turned off or removed. The chips are intended to replace bar codes and to identify a garment anywhere at any time, from the point of production right through shipping and to the final sale.
The technology is being promoted as a way for retail stores to prevent theft, increase efficiency and track inventory.
"The more accurate the information they have on me, the more I benefit," says Catherine Johnston, president of Advanced Card Technology Canada. "It means they'll be able to restock what I like in my size and in colours I like."
But a step toward RFID technology also means a step closer to infringement of privacy rights.
Although at this point the readers can only scan garments from 1 to 2 metres away, as smart tags and readers become more prevalent, any transmitter anywhere will be able to access customer information.
"Anything's possible right now," says James Fung of the department of electrical engineering at the University of Toronto. "Where consumers are, where they shop, how much money they have -- it's just a matter of a company deciding how it can make it profitable.
"A lot of people will say, "If you don't want to be surveilled, don't go shopping,'" continues Fung. "But that's pretty hard these days. When everyone's using RFID, what's your option?"
In the cutthroat world of retail, quick response to customers' demands is key to survival. Meeting their needs ensures that shoppers will return again and again.
But while at first companies usually use technological advances to solve practical business problems, there's often a chance for "misuse down the road," says New York-based info technology lawyer Alan Sutin.
It's beginning to look as if Benetton's putting its plan on hold only until the storm around it dies down.
Philips Semiconductors, the company contracted to manufacture the chip, declined to be interviewed by NOW but says in its own press release issued this week that "this project will move forward as planned."