Surprising bestseller blasts P&G, Wal-Mart

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Potential marketing applications of radio-frequency identification chips-which range from in-store marketing to tracking readership of magazine ads-may be harder than ever to implement now that a book lambasting the companies behind the technology is showing surprising popularity.

"Spychips: How Major Corporations and Government Plan to Track Your Every Move with RFID," published Sept. 27, hit the top 10 on Amazon.com's nonfiction best-seller list and No. 1 on its current-events list during its first week of publication, said the book's author, Katherine Albrecht.

The book was already is in its third printing, she said, after demand swamped initial projections despite relatively modest pre-publication publicity, besides Ms. Albrecht tapping her own e-mail list of supporters of her group, Caspian, or Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering.

Futuristic scenarios of RFID use in marketing once included targeting TV commercials to consumers based on what they buy or when they take the last bottle of Coca-Cola from the fridge, the book says, outlining a 2000 "house of the future" established by Procter & Gamble Co. and MIT in Cambridge, England.

More realistically, perhaps, backers of the soon-to-launch Apollo media tracking project from Arbitron and VNU have discussed using RFID in magazine pages to tackle hard-to-track ad exposure for the medium among its opt-in panelists.

Ms. Albrecht is trying to thwart such developments, contending they'll ultimately lead to snooping on consumers not only by marketers but also by government and high-tech voyeurs and stalkers.

Privacy policy

Ms. Albrecht singles out P&G as the driver behind global RFID development, and said its acquisition of Gillette Co., whose products Caspian boycotts over its retail RFID testing practices, only makes it a bigger mover for the technology.

Despite assurances that it has no plans to track consumer behavior with RFID, P&G filed for a 2001 patent titled "Systems and Methods for Tracking Consumers in a Store Environment," the book says.

Milan Turk Jr., director-global customer business development for P&G, said that while he was not aware of the patent, "privacy is something we take very seriously."

Any consumer research or marketing applications of the technology, he said, remain in the distant future, as P&G and others are focused on making the technology work on pallets and cases at Wal-Mart Stores and other retailers.

The cost of chips still prohibits widespread use on most products, though manufacturers recently have driven costs as low as under 7¢ a chip. As a practical matter, manufacturers and retailers are still struggling to reliably apply and read the chips, though Wal-Mart says it will expand its use of RFID on pallets and cases to 500 stores by the end of the month.

Meanwhile, Ms. Albrecht, a libertarian Harvard doctoral student, also is preparing to reveal another of her facets-Christian activist. A second edition of her book due in January links RFID to the "mark of the beast" in the Book of Revelations.

That line of reasoning may make some of her corporate foes snicker privately, but has gotten a warm reception from some fellow privacy advocates hoping to expand their reach.

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