Wal-Mart, Tracking Tags, Privacy, and Liberal Philosophy

Why scream about Wal-Mart's RFID tags when the government does much worse?

The Wall Street Journal brings us news of a frightening new change coming to your underwear:

Starting next month, the retailer will place removable "smart tags" on individual garments that can be read by a hand-held scanner. Wal-Mart workers will be able to quickly learn, for instance, which size of Wrangler jeans is missing, with the aim of ensuring shelves are optimally stocked and inventory tightly watched... Some privacy advocates hypothesize that unscrupulous marketers or criminals will be able to drive by consumers' homes and scan their garbage to discover what they have recently bought. They also worry that retailers will be able to scan customers who carry new types of personal ID cards as they walk through a store, without their knowledge.  [emphasis added]

The blogosphere and commentariat immediately erupted in shocked horror.  Imagine the privacy implications of a store's electronic scanner being able to instantly tell exactly what you were wearing and where you bought it, just by you walking by!  With terabyte databases now commonplace, Corporate Big Brother could soon discover that you borrowed your roommate's sweatshirt, or maybe have been shopping at Goodwill for used clothes.  Tremble in fear at the thought of corporate America being able to identify which apparently-straight men are secretly wearing ladies' panties!

Rubbish.  The privacy fears directed at Wal-Mart are totally unfounded.

In screaming about shadows, unfortunately, the so-called "privacy advocates" are utterly ignoring genuine threats to personal security involving RFID tagging - and in so doing, reveal something very interesting about the underlying philosophy of liberals.

This Tag To Be Removed By Consumer

First, as the Journal article plainly stated, Wal-Mart's new tags are no different from the cardboard barcodes we're all used to finding attached to clothes: they can be, and virtually always are, removed and discarded before wearing.

Wal-Mart is demanding that suppliers add the tags to removable labels or packaging instead of embedding them in clothes, to minimize fears that they could be used to track people's movements.  [emphasis added]

While the goods are in Wal-Mart's possession, it makes perfect sense for Wal-Mart to want to make them more easily trackable.  Instead of having to manually hunt for a missing box of goods, for instance, a clerk with a reader could wave it around in the air and get a directional fix.

As soon as you pay, though, you're free to remove and discard the tags right then and there, or at home, or however you prefer.  Sure, in theory somebody could drive down the street on trash-collection day and read all the tags to see who'd been buying what that week, but how likely or harmful is that?

What Wal-Mart is doing is actually a textbook case of carefully using technology for good.  The tags will serve a valuable purpose to Wal-Mart, making their operations more efficient and allowing them to lower their prices.  Yes, it will make catching thieves easier; we eagerly look forward to a lefty defense of why that is a bad thing.

The moment you pay for the item and walk out of the store, though, you have both the right and the ability to remove the tags.  Bingo: no further privacy implications!

Contrary to the fulminating nuts, there will be no method, means, or plan to continue to identify your clothes any more than there is today.  The RFID tags will be lying in a landfill somewhere, safe from prying eyes.  Only if you're the sort of person who leaves the tags on your clothes while wearing them would you have anything to be concerned about, and in that case, you probably have bigger worries anyway.

...But Not This One!

Much more anti-privacy than anything
Wal-Mart even dreams of doing.

In stark contrast, many state governments have been truly doing exactly what the bloggers wrongly accuse Wal-Mart of doing... yet, somehow, nobody seems to care.  New York State and Washington state both offer RFID drivers licenses whose data can indeed be read remotely.

What's worse: someone knowing that you're wearing last year's Hanes?  Or a stranger being able to instantly discover your name, address, phone number, and all the other data stored on your drivers license?

Unlike Wal-Mart's RFID tags, the government tags are embedded in the ID so you can't remove them.  If you want to travel to another country, you have to have a passport.  That passport will have an RFID tag in it, like it or not - and those tags have already been proven insecure.

Of course there are various countermeasures, but why should the government force us to resort to them?  Why don't the privacy mavens care about the government ramming RFID into devices they issue, when the privacy risks of such things as EZ-Passes are well known?

On the one hand, business does something relatively harmless and bloggers freak.  On the other hand, government does something much, much more threatening and nobody minds.

The obvious reason?  To leftists and statists, government actions are inherently right and are always justified because they are for a "public purpose."  The actions of private businesses, in contrast, no matter how clearly explained and non-threatening, are inherently suspect because they are driven by the motive of private profit.

It doesn't matter how hazardous, intrusive, or confiscatory the government's action turns out to be; since bureaucrats represent "the people" their motives must always be pure and their intentions always good.

In like manner, it doesn't matter how many billions of poor Americans' hard-earned dollars Wal-Mart has helped them save by offering low prices; the mere fact that capitalists might somehow be making money automatically pollutes everything they touch.

H.L. Mencken once defined Puritanism as "the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy;" if he were alive today, he could well define liberalism as the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be earning money and bettering themselves and others by hard work and intelligence.

Our modern nanny-staters and worry-warts have it exactly backwards, of course - the greed and any nefarious intent of private businesses is held in check by the fact that angry customers can vote them out instantly with their dollars, whereas you cannot avoid dealing with your government unless you're willing to move out of the country.  Is it any surprise that government is far more intrusive in our daily lives than any private company ever could be?

So when you read the latest rant against something a private business is doing, pause a moment to reflect on the underlying assumptions rather than just swallowing it whole.  Consider instead the real threat to your privacy and freedom: an all-powerful, unchecked, irresistible government cheered on in its predations by those who should be most wary.

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other Scragged.com articles by Petrarch or other articles on Society.
Reader Comments
"Our modern nanny-staters and worry-warts have it exactly backwards, of course - the greed and any nefarious intent of private businesses is held in check by the fact that angry customers can vote them out instantly with their dollars, whereas you cannot avoid dealing with your government unless you're willing to move out of the country"

Ding, ding, ding. BINGO!

Afraid of what Walmart's doing (though you have no reason to be)? Then don't shop there. If enough people don't, they'll stop using RFID.

Afraid of what the government's doing (which you DEFINITELY should be)? Oh well. Nothing you can do. You can vote in a politician that agrees with you, of course, but that will do very little to reverse the already-stamped, already-integrated RFID in your butt pocket. And as we've seen from American history, voting in your politician does virtually nothing to reverse government action and tear down bureaucracies.
July 29, 2010 8:32 AM
Once again, find myself in agreement with lfon.
July 29, 2010 9:09 AM
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