Held by Rena Tangens, FoeBuD e.V., and Frank Rosengart, Chaos Computer Club
In their "Future Store", a supermarket of the "Extra" chain in Rheinberg near Duisburg (opened in April 2003 with a well-advertised event featuring Claudia Schiffer), the Metro Group are trialling the use of transponders or so-called RFIDs ("Radio Frequency Identification" devices). These are small chips with an antenna which, when held near a reading device, send out an identification code.
Every yoghurt cup, every wine bottle, and every sweater is given its own ID, which can be read without physical or even line-of-sight contact. With networked reading devices, information related to each identified item can be directly retrieved, such as the price. As customer cards, credit or "loyalty" cards can be fitted with RFIDs as well, we, the customers can be uniquely identified, too. This opens up completely new opportunities.
You may find this incredible in a moment - but each of the following scenarios is either today's reality, or closely following RFID lobbyists' marketing strategy papers.
The "Future Store" has opened in Rheinberg near Duisburg. Trial customer Marion Z. is impressed: she can hold her new customer card next to her shopping trolley to receive a personal welcome on a display built into its handle, and she is then shown her own standard shopping list (which she had to supply to be stored earlier). With each shopping trip, the computer will modify the list according to her personal preferences. A "navigation system" on the display leads her to each next item on her list, always choosing an optimal route. Browsing time is eliminated. And: because the RFIDs make theft almost impossible, prices are set to fall, so they say. There is no conveyor belt to place your shopping on, no checkout at all, payment is by card. "Veeery handy!"
The first retailers' representatives are given tours of the Future Store, and they are enthusiastic! No more goods selling out, shelf refilling can be coordinated centrally. No more need for price tags on items, as prices are transferred directly from the central computer to the trolley displays. And customers can be addressed individually with commercial spots and adverts, via the displays. As supermarket holder Dietmar K. is beaming into a TV camera: "It's a retail revolution, we are entering a golden age!"
Spiegel Online, the web edition of a German weekly and a major provider of German news on the internet, are fooled by Metro's PR activities and publish an article full of nothing but praise of the advantages for the consumer. For example, the new system would enable customers to find out exactly in which country articles were made, via the displays. Shopping would become much more transparent. At Metro's marketing department, the champagne bottles are cracking. "Do they really think we'd be stupid enough to spell out the fact that these coffee beans were picked by 5 year old children??" wonders intern Nina S. After the celebration she continues entering detours into the navigation system of the shopping trolleys server, making it lead the customers past selected products.
Marion Z. finds an article in the paper about the Big Brother Award. She is shocked by the surveillance opportunities created by RFIDs. A letter to the editor is giving reassurance: RFIDs are not dangerous at all, they can easily be destroyed in the microwave. Alarmed, she bangs her last Future Store shopping into her microwave. The butter melts, the zipper on the jeans is sparking fireworks. A scream is heard: "Oh sh**, that's the last time I've done that!" Have the chips actually been destroyed? Marion doesn't know.
Lars H., second term student of computer science, is developing a small jamming transmitter on behalf of the FoeBuD association in Bielefeld. It can prevent RFIDs from being read. Marion Z. is buying one. Lars H. drops out of university and launches a start-up company for his transmitters. He donates parts of the profits to FoeBuD.
Gerd J., supermarket assistant, is excited about the new technology. That nuisance of sitting at the checkout is a thing of the past, it's easier to refill the shelves, warehouses are used more effectively. Coming home from work, he finds a letter from the executive with a caution. It says he's been to the toilet nine times a day, spending about 72 minutes there on average. This is 27 minutes above the target, an amount that will be deducted from his working time in the future. Shocked, he searchers his supermarket coat and finds an RFID in the collar.
RFID prices have dropped to 1 Cent per chip, and there is now an common, accepted technical standard. This makes their overall introduction a close reality.
Feta maker Karsten P. has now received 10 faxes from the major retail chains. If he is not going to integrate RFIDs into all his packaging in the next three months, his supply contracts will be cancelled. Karsten P. has resisted this new technology so far, but thinking of his 75 employees, he is now giving in.
Marion Z. is sent a caution from the Duisburg authorities with a fine. The wrapping paper of a Mars bar she has bought was found in the town park, floating in the duck pond. After some pondering, Marion Z. remembers that she gave the sweet to a young carol singer. Grinding her teeth, she pays the 10 Euro fine.
Start-up entrepreneur Lars H. is sick, staying at home. He asks his neighbour Nina S. to go shopping for him. As she returns with the bill, he is puzzled to find that Nina S. is paying twice the usual amount for some products. They confirm that sanitary products are more expensive for her than for him. Comparing with friends, they verify that all women are paying more for sanitaries, that families are paying more for videos than singles and so on. A call to the consumers' association establishes that competition laws have been changed months ago on the back of some bill extending shopping hours. This "price discrimination", as the technical term goes, can no longer be challenged.
Supermarket assistant Gerd J., now out of work because he hasn't got his toilet times under control, is at the filling station. As the RFID in the chewing gum package in his jacket has not been destroyed at the supermarket, he is identified as a chewing gum user, and while he is waiting for his car to be filled he is shown a video advertising other chewing gum brands.
Start-up boss Lars H. is buying a new intelligent fridge. Reading product RFIDs, it knows what it is storing, which yoghurt is nearing its sell-by date, and what will have to be restocked with the next shopping. The fridge can order missing items automatically through the internet or add them to the shopping list on the supermarket trolley display. And via a display in its door it can suggest recipes. At night, Lars is dreaming that the fridge is autonomously ordering a Pizza Tonno for itself and eating it together with the toaster. He wakes up in a sweat. Hung over, he finds a warning by his health insurance in the post. His food is too rich in colours and preservatives, it says. If he isn't going to change his diet, his insurance premium will be raised next year.
As Marion Z. is approaching her supermarket, the door is not opening. The store manager's first question is: "Could it be that you're carrying one of those jamming transmitters in your pocket? Oh no, you won't get in then." This experience is repeated at almost every supermarket in the area. From now on she will leave her "jammer" at home. In the evening, she glances across a newspaper article from November 2003 in her paper recycling bin: "Privacy activists are chasing ghosts - Metro Group calls dire predictions 'absolutely unrealistic'."
We repeat: The above scenarios are closely following RFID lobbyists' concrete plans, some of which are already being tested in pilot projects. There are confidential marketing strategy papers that have been found and published on the web by CASPIAN, an American consumer protection organisation. These papers explicitly state dispersing consumers' fears about their privacy as one of the main objectives. Such a goal should make us especially suspicious.
We demand that RFIDs, which are undeniably practical for warehouse logistics, must be destroyed at the time the goods are passed into the hands of consumers. This can be achieved by simple technological means.
We are calling for laws to give consumers the right to know if RFIDs are being used, what data is stored on them and when, where, by whom and for what purpose the RFIDs surrounding us are being read.
The law regulating fair competition is currently under revision. Until now it would only regulate company-to-company relations. The new law is now going to explicitly protect consumers' rights as well. This is a good opportunity to include the new issue of RFIDs and the resulting scenarios, such as price discrimination.
RFIDs lead to a whole new definition of "consumption terror" - especially when an international technological standard will be established. Through snooping and collecting customer profiles, a new dimension of advertising and targeted manipulation will become possible, which is threatening the right to a self-determined life. And no one will be able to escape.
The Future Store is a research station for many, but by far not all conceivable scenarios. For its instigation and the related marketing concepts, the Metro Group is receiving an exemplary and future-oriented Big Brother Award. It's a pity that the company is not going to face this discussion here today. The more it is down to customers, consumer protection initiatives and politicians not to let this development - which will be able to change our lives so profoundly - lie in the hands of the companies.
Congratulations, dear Metro Group!