Monday, July 12, 2004

RFID: Coming soon to stores everywhere

Walmart is requiring its top 100 suppliers to use Radio Frequency ID (RFID) tags, small devices that emit radio waves containing information about a product’s size, price, age, etc. Walmart, famous for strong-arming suppliers, has backed away from a plan to literally tag the suppliers’ workers, opting (for now) to just tag pallets, crates, and boxes.

RFIDs promise to increase the quality of consumer goods. No longer will you get stale Corn Pops off the grocery shelf-- the RFID tag will know the product is old and those goods will be redirected to Asian food markets.

Retailers will also be able to spot trends more quickly and stock the items that consumers are demanding. For example, stores in cities hosting the DNC will now have plenty of fruits, flakes, and nuts on hand.

Retailers have only reported success stories with RFID technology to date, and are quick to point out that RFIDs do not use the same brain-damaging frequencies (BDFs) as cell-phones-- they use different BDFs altogether.

One problem has surfaced recently though: RFID tags don’t stick to frozen food very well. One company looked at sticking the tags directly into sausage before freezing, based on the notion that no one knows what’s in sausage anyway.

Sure enough, sausage makers can now track the number of links consumed and the exact position of their customers via the RFID tags in their bellys. The sausage maker’s in-house scientists are currently shredding evidence showing most of their customers weigh more than 250 pounds and sit in front of the TV a lot.

Although retailers are excited about the opportunity to make a buck, civil libertarians are, predictably, a little more pessimistic. They claim not only do RFID tags track goods through the supply chain, but that by linking the products purchased to the credit card numbers used to purchase them, consumer spending behaviour can be tracked.

Based on this potential, Texas Instruments is hurrying up development of new RFID tags code-named ‘truent officers’ that correlate a worker’s spending habits with their work attendance. The new tags can reportedly call tardy workers directly:

Worker: “I’m not feeling well today, I’m gonna stay home.”
RFID: “I guess you’re not feeling well, you drank a couple of bottles of Scotch last night, and it wasn’t even good Scotch.”
Worker: “Yeah, but I do that every night. I don’t think it was the Scotch.”
RFID: “Then it must have been the sausage this morning. You know how sausage affects your spastic colon. Now turn off the TV and get your fat ass to work.”

The RFID tags are not exactly cheap, costing 20 cents to $1 apiece for every company except the government, who put in a bid to pay $100 per tag. Seargent Awol Graft of the Army Logisitics Command proposed tracking every part in its inventory of 100 million parts. Stated Graft, “I know $15 billion is a lot of dough, but maybe now we’ll figure out who has all our damn Sidewinders.”

Refusing to be outspent by another government agency, NASA recently jumped on the RFID bandwagon saying the technology would have been perfect for finding all the broken pieces after the recent shuttle disaster. When we pointed out that perhaps preventing the crash in the first place was a better way to spend money a NASA spokesman said, “The general public doesn’t understand our mission. We have to account for every eventuality before launch and on re-entry. However, whatever goes wrong in space is a different story. You know what they say, ‘what happens in space, stays in space.’”

Internet hackers and the mafia, ever alert for new ways to steal, have recognized the intrinsic value of RFIDs for a long time. They rountinely pull tags off palettes and sell them on eBay repackaged as Walkman radios.

This black market was discovered recently when Timmy Stevens told his mom the Walkman commanded him to restock the cupboard with bran flakes and carb-free pork rinds. After massive doses of ADD drugs and shock therapy failed to change Timmy’s story, the police were alerted.

Sometimes, just for fun, hackers crack into the tags and switch the product ID’s around. Come to think of it, that could explain why our Corn Pops taste more like Kibbles lately.