Industry Market Trends

RFID: EZPass and SpeedPass Poised to Bypass All that Is Right and Good with the World?

Mar 17, 2005

One might think that we're living in Orwellian times, what with terrorism, shootings, vaccine shortages, and other threats bombarding our national psyche. There may even be a shred of legitimacy in the idea that some of these 'threats' are well-orchestrated scams to keep people living in a constant state of fear. Control isn't in fear, however. Control is in the data.

Being a junior conspiracy theorist (or nutcase), I've for years resisted the temptation to get an EZPass. "I'll continue with my old-fashioned ways, and in the process experience the unique, one-of-a-kind, human interaction available only at a New Jersey Turnpike toll booth," I muttered. I figured it was just another way for Big Brother to know, at least, that I'm somewhere between Exit A and Exit B at any given travel or commuting moment. While there exists an undeniable truth in that position, the theory falls apart when one faces the sobering truth, for example, that Big Brother couldn't care less about where I am. Hopefully, he is worried about bigger things, like people with explosives in their shoes. (They must be. The Transportation Security Administration is bizarrely interested in footwear these days. Could the Fashion Police be far behind? "I'm sorry, sir. No one with your taste in shoes is allowed to board this aircraft. Matter of fact, you're not allowed to go anywhere. Ever.")

Problem is, Big Brother is very smart—and employs a rapidly growing army of minions. Big Bro' also has a great Marketing Department. ("Hey! I know! Let's make 9 out of ten lanes accept EZPass only! Let's leave them no choice whatsoever!") Well, my commute recently changed, and I succumbed to the convenience factor. (Actually, pushing me over the edge was watching an 18-wheeler blast full-throttle though an EZPass lane. "I want to do that so badly," I sighed.) My new best friend is the EZPass. This Instrument of Big Bro' (one of many, actually)—in a single, mighty swing—lopped nearly ten minutes from my commute. Cool. Who could argue with that? Ah. There's the rub. Like Church Lady used to say, "Well, isn't that conveeeeeeeenient…".

While we tend, I think, to imagine RFID as the gifted child of the Supply Chain family—the one who gives logistics managers hope for tomorrow—the technology has already gone way beyond the warehouse. EZPass is an excellent, real-world example of RFID, as is SpeedPass. I now use both regularly; perhaps stupidly, perhaps blindly. According to a fascinating article in April's MIT's Technology Review, such applications of RFID aren't even scratching the surface, leading us quickly—blindfolded all the way—to a Minority Report-like reality in which advertising around us changes merely by our presence.

Currently being tested in three supermarkets is the Shopping Buddy, developed by the Stop and Shop supermarket chain, IBM, and software maker Cuesol. "The paperback-book-sized device, introduced early last year at three stores near Boston, is installed in shopping cart handles. To use it, a shopper scans in his loyalty card; a simple graphical interface then appears, displaying such features as sale items and a customer favorites list. On the favorites list are the names of the things the shopper buys most frequently, whether he buys them in the store or has them delivered to his house by Peapod—which, in a neat post-bubble twist, Stop and Shop's parent company now owns. The device creates a map of the store and displays a suggested route. Infrared beacons on the ceiling track the cart's location, so the device can automatically alert the customer if any of his favorite items are on sale in the aisle he is currently browsing. The interface also lets the shopper wirelessly order cold cuts from the deli; an alert sounds when they are ready. Finally, an attached imaging scanner lets the shopper scan items as he puts them in the cart; as the cart fills, a running total is displayed. When it comes time for checkout, the cashier scans the shopper's loyalty card, and all of the items in the cart are listed on the register screen. This saves time for both the shopper and the cashier." Note that Shopping Buddy is but a small element in the bigger picture presented compellingly by author Robert Buderi.

Of course it saves time. Would anyone use it otherwise? Also note that the system relies upon yet another Widget of Evil, the store loyalty card.

"Privacy concerns are at the top of the list for retailers, says Hopping, of IBM's Retail Store Solutions Division, 'because if privacy blows up, that's the kiss of death for a retailer.'" That's my only problem with the article. It's not a matter of if. The means aren't sci-fi anymore. They're here. Now. But so few seem to notice.