Watchers must not be stalkers

Consider the following statement: ‘This is the most dangerous technology humanity has come up with since the nuclear bomb. Our children’s generation will judge us by how we handle this.’ Biochemical weapons of mass destruction? Genetic engineering? No, this is a former marketing academic describing radio frequency identification technology (RFID for short).

RFID technology essentially consists of an innocuous-looking miniaturised microchip, which emits a uniquely coded radio signal detectable at about 30 feet. What could possibly be dangerous about that? The answer, say civil liberties pressure groups, lies in its unstated potential uses.

Ostensibly, major companies such as Tesco, Wal-Mart and Gillette are actively engaged in surveying RFID’s potential as a kind of superior stock-taker. Brand manufacturers correctly see it as a way of improving ‘just-in-time’ shelf management and minimising theft. For retailers, there is the additional benefit of replacing the barcode system with something that is not only more flexible in practical application, but also records each purchase uniquely, as opposed to generically. The trouble is that to achieve these ends effectively, the microchip would have to be embedded (irretrievably) in each product, enabling over time a unique consumer profile to be scanned into a database.

Trouble, you say? On the contrary, isn’t this just the Holy Grail that marketers have been in quest of: the perfect marriage of EPOS data with socio-demographic profiling? Well, not if the information is abused, or falls into the wrong hands. We don’t need to embrace the language of 1984 (or sensational parallels with the nuclear bomb, for that matter) to suggest that here, potentially, is a source of information that far exceeds in extent and precision anything held by government agencies; and that consumers might reasonably be concerned about the invasion of their privacy.

Underlying the RFID issue is an interesting tension between, on the one hand, enormous supply-side pressures for clinical efficiency and accountability and, on the other, the need to proceed cautiously by consent, whether legal or social. Frustratingly perhaps, consent has to win every time. Which is why Gillette and others have pulled back from the ‘full monty’ version of RFID after civil liberties issues were raised.

Yet marketers will continue to test the frontiers of acceptability, if only because in a world of clutter they need to find novel ways of capturing consumers’ attention and buying habits. Whether through talking posters, ‘chuggers’ who aggressively market charities in the high street, or a more complex scenario involving microchips linked to in-store video cameras, an elusive one-to-one relationship is the goal.

Its pursuit may at times cause friction, but for marketers – with apologies to Oscar Wilde – there is only one thing worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.

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