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Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Future of Retail: RFID?

Many young people find their first jobs in the retail or service industries, and these same industries employ many other people throughout the country and the world. I myself worked at my local Safeway store for several years in high school, so I know how important retail jobs are for many communities. However, technology has progressed to a point where retail operators are considering the use of radio-frequency identification tags (RFID), which can reduce or eliminate many of the most common jobs in many retail outlets.

The idea is this: replace bar codes and other forms of tracking technology with minuscule RFID tags that can be coded uniquely. Similar technology is already used to prevent theft in many stores, and it can be extended to record purchases electronically and improve inventory systems. This could potentially replace traditional jobs of checkers and sales clerks in many stores, if customers' purchases could be recorded electronically. It could also reduce or eliminate checkout lines and save retail operators a significant amount of money lost in wages.

This technology has be proposed for a number of other applications, including commercial advertising and national security.  It has also been proposed for use in education to record attendance of students. This application will function similar to the RFID use in retail, as institutions can attach RFID trackers to student ids and record their attendance using RFID receivers. All of these uses have, or course, generated a large amount of protest. From arguments about loss of employment to basic concerns about personal privacy, this technology has proven to be very controversial.

The question in regards to this technology is how pervasive in our lives do we want our technology to be? In the case of the grocery store, it can be very convenient to us to allow RFID technology to streamline our shopping. But in terms of tracking technology using RFID, it can seriously invade our privacy.

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