So far, it's been no contest. The doctoral student keeps winning round after round.
In the past year, Katherine Albrecht, founder of Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering (Caspian), has helped scuttle RFID tests and unearth embarrassing internal documents from technology backers, making her presence felt from Bentonville to Berlin. She publicizes each industry faux pas on Caspian's site, Spychips.org, often getting the message into news outlets across the globe in 24 hours. Her efforts have helped get two of the world's biggest retailers to publicly disavow plans to use RFID chips on packages or consumer loyalty cards.
Wal-Mart Stores last year said it decided against trying RFID chips on individual products-at least for now-the same week Ms. Albrecht publicized a trove of devious-sounding "communication-strategy" documents left unprotected on the Web site of the Auto-ID Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, developer of the RFID technology. The files outlined plans to downplay privacy issues despite research showing widespread consumer concern.
In January, Ms. Albrecht took her act global. As she organized protests of RFID plans by Germany's Metro, she persuaded management to give her one of the chain's loyalty cards. In it, she discovered a hidden RFID chip, which, combined with chips on packages, could help Metro track every item a shopper purchases. After she publicized the find, Metro recalled thousands of the cards and vowed to stop embedding chips in new ones.
The same month, the Grocery Manufacturers Association stubbed its toe trying to dig up data on Ms. Albrecht. The group apologized to her after an intern assigned to request a "biography" mistakenly copied the activist on an e-mail to her GMA boss. The e-mail read: "I don't know what to tell this woman! `Well, actually we're trying to see if you have a juicy past that we could use against you."'
GMA spokesman Richard Martin said the e-mail was genuine. He admitted that he wonders "how someone who's had such a small operation has been able to get her voice heard in ways the industry hasn't been able to." He attributes her success to "exaggeration," though he declined to provide specifics. "Tales of conspiracy theory make interesting press," he said. "Unfortunately, they don't mesh with reality. ... We're committed to rolling out [RFID] in a responsible fashion, with a real focus on protecting consumer privacy."
The hunt for Ms. Albrecht's "juicy past" may not have advanced that message. But it's hard to blame GMA for being curious. She's unlike activists it's used to fighting. The former teacher, working on her doctoral thesis in consumer psychology, describes herself as a "free-market libertarian." She doesn't want legislation or regulation. She just wants marketers to stop collecting individual consumer purchase data, because she says consumers don't want it collected.
She won't disclose her age or precisely how she makes a living. She is, after all, a privacy advocate. But she says she has held some part-time jobs in addition to her academic and Caspian work, adding: "My husband would probably like to know how I plan to make a living with that Harvard doctorate, too."
Ms. Albrecht points to studies from the 1960s through 1990s showing business majors scoring lowest in ratings of academic ethics among undergraduates, with marketing majors scoring among the lowest within business disciplines in one 1998 study.
She asks: "Are these really people we want to entrust with our personal data?"
Name: Katherine Albrecht
Who: The Harvard doctoral student is working on her dissertation in consumer psychology when she's not working unpaid to uncover and stop use of RFID technology on products.
Challenge: Prevent retailers and marketers from using RFID chips on products - or get them to voluntarily disclose when they do and remove or disable them before they leave stores. While she's won PR battles, she fears she may lose the war, because growing supply-chain use of RFID will make it less expensive to use on consumer products.
Now: Founder of Caspian-Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering-and foremost opponent of marketing uses of data from Radio Frequency ID chips, which can store and transmit data on each individual consumer product and who bought it.