Tracked Workers Outraged Over RFID Tagging

By Tom Steinert-Threlkeld Print this article Print

RFID could make the warehouse—the one storing merchandise, not data—could be the next privacy battlefront. Are you ready to respond?

Are you ready for your warehouse to become a privacy battlefront?

If not, keep your eye on the United Kingdom. One of the largest trade unions there, GMB, is up in arms about radio frequency identification technology—and is trying to put its foot down.

The 700,000-member General, Municipal, Boiler makers and Allied Trade Union is demanding the European Commission outlaw radio tags in ware houses. Not on merchandise, but on workers.

They fear that identification tags and computing devices they're asked to use to move goods for such big British retailers as Tesco, Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury, Boots and Homebase will turn them into "factory robots," according to London's Guardian newspaper.

The fear?

The stated fear is they'll be tracked every time they take a break or head for the rest room. The unstated fear: Every movement becomes trackable. Employers, using the information gathered by ever-present radio waves, could see which warehouse worker really is most efficient and prioritize hiring, firing and overtime accordingly.

Sure, tags can be turned into policing tools. But even without embedding tags in uniforms or armbands, efficiency already can be monitored with video cameras. Allowing workers to take off armbands when on private time doesn't really change the calculus, either. You can still figure out when a time–out is being taken.

Besides, productivity is indeed the name of the capitalistic enterprise. It's hard for an employee to argue with performance monitoring. Still, it's clear that if you don't inform workers of how you're going to use tagging technology, what information you're going to collect and how you're going to use that data—and stick to it—you're very likely to get resistance and reduced productivity.

Tagging a person is not necessarily putting the "mark of the beast" on the individual or Orwellian Big Brother act. John Halamka, the chief information officer of health services provider CareGroup in Boston, has had an ID chip put in his arm, to help him understand whether that might be useful when doctors need to find the medical records of nonverbal, unconscious or mentally ill patients. That's a worthwhile use. Even Andy Rooney has suggested he'd be willing to have a chip implant, if that would make it easier to differentiate him from a terrorist. Another good use.

But we don't even need tags for that. Your body already can act as your personal identification card. Just take a fingerprint or look someone in the eye (with the right kind of scanner).

In fact, on this side of the Atlantic, grocers are taking the lead on this. And customers don't seem to mind.

At four Albertson's stores in Portland, Ore., and a pilot set of Piggly Wiggly stores in Charleston, S.C., customers can register their fingerprint and credit card information. Then, when they come through the checkout lane with their carrots and beef, all they have to swipe is ... their fingertip.

So far, about 20% of Albertson's customers who typically pay by check or plastic have now begun to pay by finger. And no one's lost their biological "card" yet.

Which makes our bodies still our best identification system. If you were motivated enough, after all, you could theoretically extract Andy Rooney's chip. Or even hack into it.

What makes the customers at Albertson's happy about being identified personally is they get something in return for it: a more convenient method of paying for their purchases.

What makes the union workers in the U.K. unhappy about being identified is: They can't see what they get out of it.

Here's a capitalistic thought: Share the wealth. If you can keep track of what each warehouse worker does, whether by tags or by fingertips, reward the most productive with bonuses.

Your costs will still go down, even if those workers' total pay goes up.

Perish the thought? No. Cherish it. It's the magic of productivity—whether it's the customer or employee delivering it.

Battle over.

This article was originally published on 2005-08-04
Tom was editor-in-chief of Interactive Week, from 1995 to 2000, leading a team that created the Internet industry's first newspaper and won numerous awards for the publication. He also has been an award-winning technology journalist for the Dallas Morning News and Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He is a graduate of the Harvard Business School and the University of Missouri School of Journalism.
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