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The most disturbing aspect of project was Wal-Mart’s emphatic denial that they had secretly photographed their customers. They weren’t confused. They didn’t make a mistake. They chose to lie. It was only after Albrecht exposed evidence that Wal-Mart finally admitted conducting pilot tests in an effort to combat shoplifting and employee theft. After all, argument goes, this type of inventory shrinkage costs U.S. retailers as much as $32 billion each year. 2 Don’t feel too sorry for our friends in blue. The bill for this hefty loss is passed on to you and me).
The public was unmoved by Wal-Mart’s defense, and project has been aborted. At least for now. Wal-Mart’s smiley face logo belies arrogance wrought by its success, and we will likely see photographic “smart shelf” again. Or it will see us, anyway.
Wal-Mart is somewhat like a spoiled child, a casualty of indulgence, who is accustomed to doing quite what he wants when he wants to and rarely anything that he doesn’t. It hardly seems fair to expect child to accept “no” when he only vaguely recognizes word, and even less so, it’s finality
Bear in mind that RFID does not create opportunities for consumer profiling. We do. Every time we enter a store we expose ourselves to scrutiny. Every time we purchase goods or utilize a service we are assimilated, Borg-like, into collective revenue stream. Everything costs something.
Worldwide spending on RFID is expected to top $3 billion by 2008, almost triple market of a year ago. 3 Wal-Mart’s decree that its top 100 suppliers must be RFID compliant by 2005 told rest of world to either get on train or get off track. The U.S. Department of Defense has since issued a similar mandate, and falling technology prices coupled with establishment of uniform RFID communication standards are making it easier for other industries to do same.
The War on Drugs
It’s no longer enough to just say no to schoolyard crack jockeys. We have new enemies in war on drugs. Our increasing reliance on chemical relief — born of a pervasive spiritual poverty as much as our aging demographic— has made us attractive to drug counterfeiters.
Counterfeit drugs are sub-potent or inert imposter pills that are channeled into prescription drug pipeline and sold as legitimate medication. The World Health Organization estimates that in less-developed countries as many as half of all prescription drugs dispensed are counterfeit. 4 The economic cost to defrauded and dying consumers is staggering. And it is almost meaningless compared to emotional cost.
In February 2004 U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Counterfeit Drug Task Force released its report “Combating Counterfeit Drugs”. FDA Commissioner Mark McClellan directed group’s six month review of America’s prescription drug channels.
Its conclusion? The supply of prescription drugs in United States is overwhelmingly safe. The FDA’s complex system of regulatory oversight insures that with rare exception, pills we pop have been manufactured to highest standards of purity and potency, distributed safely and dispensed as doctor ordered.
However, later in same report McClellan warns that drug counterfeiters are better organized and more technologically sophisticated than ever before. According to McClellan, FDA’s current system can not meet evolving challenges of new century, and he recommends full-scale implementation of RFID technology by 2006. 5
Without question, RFID is a more formidable guardian than our present paper-based drug audit system. The savviest saboteur will find RFID tags extremely difficult to counterfeit and almost impossible to do so at a profit. EPCs afford flawless accountability, which is a distinct impediment to illegal diversions and substitutions. And no doubt every overworked, carpal tunnel-strained pharmacist would welcome RFID’s promise of tighter inventory and simplified service.
Does this justify enormous expense of a complete system overhaul? Do benefits outweigh privacy concerns? Are you comfortable enlisting RFID in battle against drug terrorism?
Before you decide, consider this: The FDA may incorporate “at least two types of anti-counterfeiting technologies into packaging and labeling of all drugs, at point of manufacture, with at least one of those technologies being covert (i.e., not made public, and requiring special equipment or knowledge for detection)...” 6
“Not made public, and requiring special equipment or knowledge for detection”. Hmm... so, RFID tags can be hidden in our prescriptions without our knowledge or consent... and we will be unable to detect or remove them.
Consider, too, that companies in U.S., Canada, Sweden and Denmark have developed electronic blister packs that monitor pill removal and automatically notify physician’s computer when a patient has dispensed (or neglected to dispense) medication as scheduled. 7
Here's a better idea. The FDA should explain how concealing information from me about my prescriptions makes world a safer place. And then they can explain how spying on your medicine cabinet — and tattling to your doctor — thwarts drug counterfeiting.
The FDA’s prime directive is to protect and advance public health. They have done this remarkably well for over 140 years at an annual cost to taxpayers of only about $3 per person. 8 When evaluating any policy change FDA must always preserve that which is most fundamental to its success — indeed, its very existence — public trust. RFID may prove vital for continued integrity of our prescription drug pipeline, but never more vital than continued integrity of FDA.
RFID is in its spring. These tiny chips, sown by science and nourished richly by corporate support, will burgeon beyond imagination, penetrating our lives like roots of a willow. This is time for discourse. This is time to shore our boundaries. If we cede opportunity to deliberate, we accept surveillance as a norm. Our indifference will do nothing to stem its growth.
Endnotes 1. www.foebud.com 2. www.retailindustry.about.com 3. Jennifer Maselli, “ABI:RFID Market Poised for Growth,” RFID Journal July 18,2003. 4. www.who.int/en/ 5. www.fda.gov/oc/initiative/counterfeit/report02_04.html 6. www.fda.gov/oc/initiative/counterfeit/report02_04.html 7. www.idtechex.com 8. www.fda.gov
Copyright ©2005 by Dennis and Sally Bacchetta. All rights reserved.
Dennis Bacchetta is a Marketing Professional who writes on a variety of topics, including emerging technologies.
Sally Bacchetta is an award-winning sales trainer and freelance writer.
Contact her at email@example.com or visit her website at www.sallybacchetta.com.