Big brother in the supermarket

By EDRi · July 30, 2003

The UK supermarket chain Tesco has confirmed that it is testing a controversial surveillance system that tracks customers in one of their stores in Cambridge. Anyone buying certain products will have their picture taken. Twice.

The system uses Radio Frequency Identifiers (RFIDs) to trigger CCTV cameras to take a picture of the customer. In the test RFIDs are embedded in Gillette razor blades. When the customer takes a package of Gillette from the shelf a RFID reader will trigger a camera to take a picture. At the checkout another RFID reader will trigger a second camera. The camera’s are monitored by security personnel in the shop who will compare the two pictures. The system is supposedly designed to detect theft.

RFIDs are very small radio chips that transmit a unique serial code when a reader is placed in their proximity. Retailers hail the technology for its usefulness in logistics and supply chain management. Consumer groups and privacy advocates are campaigning for rules for the use of the chips to prevent the technology from becoming a covert surveillance tool to spy on consumers.

The use of RFIDs to track buyers in supermarkets is outlined in various presentation documents from the Auto-ID center, a platform of the RFID industry. The documents also outline ideas for theft prediction by tracking the movements and behavior of customers in a supermarket through the use of RFIDs.

Tesco tests spy chip technology (19.07.2003)

The Next Information Revolution: The Networked Physical World (Auto-ID Center)

(Contribution by Maurice Wessling, EDRI-member Bits of Freedom)