Walmart To Put RFID Tags In Your Undies

In an effort to better track inventory of its clothing items, Walmart is planning to start placing removable RFID tags on individual pairs of jeans and underwear. But some privacy advocates worry that the tags may allow unscrupulous types to learn more about your purchasing habits than you’d generally care to share.

The goal for Walmart is better inventory control. Having RFID tags placed on items, especially those available in different sizes, would allow employees to quickly scan each shelf with a hand-held device. They would then immediately know if the proper mix and quantity of each item is on the shelf.

Walmart says all RFID chips will be placed on easily removable tags that hang off the clothing like price tags.

But privacy advocates worry that even after the tags are removed, it would be incredibly easy for someone with the handheld scanner to roll down your street and scan your garbage to get an idea of what you’re buying.

They also don’t like the idea of retailers — not necessarily just Walmart — using RFID scanners to read personal info stored on the new generation of credit cards and driver’s licenses that contain RFID chips.

Says an RFID-hater:

There are two things you really don’t want to tag, clothing and identity documents, and ironically that’s where we are seeing adoption… The inventory guys may be in the dark about this, but there are a lot of corporate marketers who are interested in tracking people as they walk sales floors.

Counters a brainiac from MIT:

Concerns about privacy are valid, but in this instance, the benefits far outweigh any concerns… The tags don’t have any personal information. They are essentially barcodes with serial numbers attached. And you can easily remove them.

Perhaps Walmart should do what’s being done in Europe — or what retailers have done for years with those anti-theft devices — and remove the RFID tags at the point of checkout.

Speaking of anti-theft devices, Wal-Mart says the RFID chips should cut down on employee theft because it will be easier to see if something’s gone missing from the back room.

Wal-Mart Radio Tags to Track Clothing [WSJ via]


Edit Your Comment

  1. n0th1ng says:

    If you are worried then buy a RFID blocking wallet…or just don’t shop at Walmart. There are other stores unless you live out in nowhere.

    • valladolid says:

      How would the RFID blocking wallet help? Not shopping at Walmart sounds like a good option, though.

      • n0th1ng says:

        For the people who are worried about the RFID readers scanning their drivers licences. I’ll never stop shopping at Walmart. You can buy tires and beef jerky at 3am!!

        • MauriceCallidice says:

          This article is about tracking people’s purchase of underwear. Nothing to do with reading their credit cards.

          • ben says:

            It’s about both. You have to read the whole article, not just the headline.

            They also don’t like the idea of retailers — not necessarily just Walmart — using RFID scanners to read personal info stored on the new generation of credit cards and driver’s licenses that contain RFID chips.

        • shepd says:

          I didn’t buy one to stop someone reading my driver’s license, but to stop someone stealing money from my credit card. Some fool put an RFID chip in my credit card and it works by placing it within 2 inches or so of an official reader. One beep and no PIN, and I’ve paid for my purchase.

          Sounds great until you realize it wouldn’t take much engineering to make a reader that will fit in a briefcase which works at 10 feet. And being wireless isn’t a problem, considering how many cellular readers are out there.

    • AndroidHumanoid says:

      Love the angry sun from Super Mario Bros. 3!!!!

  2. Mecharine says:

    It seems there is a misconception. The RFID tag needs to be present for an RFID scanner to work. If there is none, like when the RFID tag is removed or broken, the scanner will not be able to detect anything.

    • zandar says:

      it will keep working even in your trash, if it isn’t destroyed.

      Solution: remove the tag AT WALMART, and let the blackhats track where Walmart’s trash is going.

      • kenj0418 says:

        Solution 2: Microwave your underwear after purchase

        (Although now your new underwear has a faint smell of microwave popcorn)

  3. Buckus says:

    Identity documents, no…clothing, not so sure how that’s a big deal to have RFID tags on them. I mean, people are going to see what you’re wearing eventually. I went to Old Navy the other week and picked up some clothes for the kids, and some of them had the security tags sewn into the clothing (easily removed), so eventually they will probably just force the manufacturers to sew the tags into the clothing anyways.

    • Minze says:

      What I am sure the manufacturers are interested in are the people who don’t remove the tags. for example, if RFID readers were set up in each department of a store they could see that 50% of the individuals who shop for men’s suits also stop by the area that has the women’s silk panties.

      They could then take this information to know not only your shopping habits, but also your store browsing habits to make sure that in between the men’s suit department and the women’s panty department are the men’s socks, belts and ties for an upsell.

  4. ShruggingGalt says:

    “anyone with a scanner could come down and find out what you’ve been buying???”

    Okay, that’s getting a little paranoid.

    ANYONE could go to your house and look in the window. If no one is at home, how would you know?

    I’d be more worried about the RFID credit cards, which are coming to the U.S. soon enough (mandatory), even though they’ve already been hacked.

    • zandar says:

      I don’t think it’s been declared mandatory just quite yet.

      I assume RFID tags can be disabled the way they can be in passports, with a hammer. You’d have to be careful where you hammer, of course.

      • bsh0544 says:

        That’s exactly how I disabled the RFID in one of my credit cards. Of course it’s transparent so the RFID chip was easy to spot/hit.

    • dolemite says:

      Heh good luck looking in my windows, all you are going to see is thick curtains in your face, or blinds. I tell my wife: “The best defense against someone stealing your stuff is to make sure no one knows what you have in the first place.”

    • SabreDC says:

      This is paranoia. Like anyone is going to spend a few hundred dollars for an RFID reader to see that you bought pants at Wal-mart. Not to mention that they’d have to check at the precise time between when you leave your trash outside and when the garbage man picks it up. It seems like a lot of effort for nothing.

      If they cared that much, they’d just rummage through your trash and find the RFID-less tag for free.

      • JennQPublic says:

        It seems like a cheaper way of seeing what I’m buying would be to hang out in front of my house for a few days, and see what I come out wearing. Heck, if you ask, I’d be happy to show off any new clothes I’ve bought.

        Not to mention the evil empire (Walmart) already has a record of every item I purchased, and could easily just attach a picture taken from security to that info to start a dossier on me.

        That is, if anyone really cares what I’ve been buying from Walmart. Which, as it turns out, no one does.

    • dg says:

      Not really that paranoid if you start looking at the next level of RFID usage. Pants and underwear aside – wait until it’s embedded in luxury shoes (where you can’t remove it or blow it out) and other luxury goods. When it’s in TV’s, other electronics. Computers. Watches, etc.

      Then someone comes by your home with an interrogator device and knows what’s in your house. Then uses that information to either break in and steal the goods, or plan an attack on your or your family personally so they can “relieve” them of the items.

      If things have an individual serial #, all you have to do is tie that to a person and then tracking that person becomes easy. And whatever purposes you want to assign to that tracking becomes easy and difficult to refute.

      If someone hacks the database (never happens right?!), then reassigns your records to the one of the guy dressed in the Lord Vader outfit that robbed the Chase bank, you’re in the unholy position of having to defend yourself against an allegation that you were someplace you weren’t because the RFID scanners said you were.

      There’s already RFID tags in all new car tires. This is supposedly so if something happens to the tire, they can track back and figure out what happened, what batch, etc. All great stuff right? Yeah, sure. But then the Feds went and installed RFID scanners in the pavement around certain cities. Now they can watch when and where vehicles supposedly are. But again, it’s subject to a database hack, or even someone stealing your tires and switching with theirs, then maybe switching back attack.

      All of these RFID things also set you up for terrorist action – it’s not a big deal to make a device that looks for a particular RFID tag (or tags), and then does something (you fill in the blanks here).

      A little paranoia isn’t a bad thing. It helps to keep you safe.

      And for people saying “Oh you can’t read it that far” – uh huh… you just need the right antenna. Bluetooth was supposed to be a short range PLAN – but there’s a number of attacks on it and people have used antennas to extend the range quite a bit. Google for “blue sniping” and see how they were injecting audio into vehicles from afar…

      RFID in clothing, or identification stinks from a privacy standpoint. And it doesn’t fix any inventory problems – all it does is prove to the retailer that the TAG is in the store. Not that the item is there – you have to physically match the tag to the item, and if you’re going to do that, you might as well scan a bar code.

  5. Christopher Wilson says:

    I don’t get why you’re trying to spin this as a bad thing, this is a good thing, it can eventually lead to easier checkouts without having to scan the barcodes.

    • tbax929 says:

      It’s bad because it’s Wal-Mart, and they can’t do anything right as far as The Consumerist is concerned. I love this site, but the Wal-Mart bashing is annoying.

      • wrjohnston91283 says:

        Consumerist has been bashing a lot of large companies recently. In this case, I have no problem with companies putting RFID tags on clothing. It makes inventory easier, it makes checkout easier. It cuts down on employee/vendor theft and saves companies money and time, which allows them to post higher profits / keep prices low.

        • BuyerOfGoods3 says:

          How about they pay their employees decent wages, so they don’t have to hock WalMart clothing for extra cash?

          I don’t care, I’m not buying any clothes (or anything else) there. Especially not after reading about the 7,000+ person strong lawsuit in Colorado regarding WalMart using a subsidiary to treat employee injuries–to keep prices down, apparently lowering the quality of care.

    • skylar.sutton says:

      I concur. Easier/better inventory => lower costs => savings passed on to consumer.

      With regard to privacy concerns, the tags are nothing more than a meaningless string of numbers and letters. When a manufacturer/retailer buys them they aren’t even guaranteed that they will follow a pattern or be in sequential order. The manufacturer then keys into their local database what type of product each tag is associated with. So driving down your street with a scanner will give you a list of worthless serial numbers, because you don’t have the databases needed to cross reference with.

    • dg says:

      OK, let’s assume that this is supposed to make checking out easier and faster. So you’re standing in line with a cart of stuff that has RFID tags embedded. The system interrogates and reads the codes. It then arrives at a cost. Unless each of those items has an individual serial # for a database to reference to, and items already sold are known to be such – then you’re going to get charged again for the pants you bought last week that also have an RFID chip in them.

      For this to work, everything has to have an individual serial #. And once it’s got that, giant databases of what you bought, when, etc. are tied to you (esp if you use a credit card). Then once they have those databases, they sell the information to marketers. What you bought. What you didn’t buy. what you bought with what you bought. And a million other metrics. All of them bought, sold, and traded by the merchant – with NONE of the benefit going to you, but all of the RISK.

      The whole thing stinks.

  6. maraa01 says:

    If you want to start an uprising against the RFID chips in credit cards and any identity documents, I will join up. RFID to track inventory? Stop overreacting. Anything that helps to stock what is selling and not overload what isn’t, cut down on theft, etc will keep prices down for everyone. If you are so paranoid that you think your garbage is being scanned then destroy the tag before throwing it out. As for ‘evil marketing people’ being able to track in store what you are buying…it is also called looking in your cart or looking at the days receipts. Get over it.

    • ShruggingGalt says:

      ding ding ding!

      They’ll know what you bought from the same receipt! Why track you?

      Unless you’re taking it from the store without paying…….

  7. pecan 3.14159265 says:

    I imagine if RFID tags could be coded specifically for the section clothing belonged to, it would help employees find wayward clothing a lot faster at the end of the day. If someone takes 10 things off the regular racks and ends up putting half of them in the clearance rack, you’ll be able to find out.

  8. GuyGuidoEyesSteveDaveâ„¢ says:

    Correct me if I am wrong, but if you cut the actual tag in half, wouldn’t that either destroy it or cut it’s range? Also, unless someone is driving down your street twice a week, what are they really going to find out? I’m sure WalMart will use a custom number for each tag, so unless you have access to their master list, what can you find out.

    I know WalMart has been wanting to do this for years, so they can streamline their inventory system to where the store can be polled a few times a day to find out current inventory, and track trends and also allow “just in time” deliveries to cut storing things/excess inventory. I don’t think a company like WalMart cares what you as an individual buy. They care what is selling where, and at what pace. It’s like when I used to play Lemonade Stand in grade school. You didn’t care WHO was buying lemonade, you were concerned with selling the most lemonade you could, with the least wasted lemonade, advertising costs, and supplies.

    Sometimes I think the privacy concern freaks spend more time and effort trying to think of ways to invade your privacy then the people they assume are out there doing it are. Also, these same privacy concern people often invade your privacy, in the name of “exposing the truth”. Is someone reallly that concerned with what style boxers I wear, or why I purchase 2 packages of socks each week?

    • tgrwillki says:

      you purchase 2 packages of socks a _week_? Is your foot sweat like acid or something?

    • dg says:

      Actually you do care WHO is buying lemonade. Some people buy more than others, or do so more frequently. Those are customers who you’d like to target so you can get more of their money. And then when they’re happy with your lemonade, you offer them more products and services (like a new flavor, or a clean cup).

      People who don’t buy your lemonade, you offer them coupons to try it. Or offer them different flavors. Then you track that, and if they respond you use that data to see when they bought it and how often. Then you correlate that to other data you have and try to sell them more crap. Or you sell the data to someone else who can use it to sell them something that the someone else offers….

  9. blinky says:

    Seems like you could have some fun with wal*mart by dropping your used ones in the clothing department.

    • Bohemian says:

      There are already tags like this sewn into most RTW clothing. I had a coat that had a security one in the side tag. It would set off the security system at the grocery store every time I wore the coat. So I cut it out and dropped it into a co-worker’s coat pocket. Wonder if they ever figured it out.

      I find these in jeans from the mall. I don’t know if they are security or inventory but I just cut them out when I find them.

  10. JamieSueAustin says:

    If you’re that freaked out about it microwave the tags when you get home and toss them in the trash. I personally don’t give two shits if people know what size granny panties I wear.

  11. Tim says:

    As for the retail tags, just take them off right after you buy them and throw them in the garbage in the parking lot.

    As for RFID in credit cards … oh, one time I was using a self-checkout at CVS and it charged my card before I even swiped it. That was weird.

  12. Jacquilynne says:

    I don’t understand this quote:

    There are two things you really don’t want to tag, clothing and identity documents, and ironically that’s where we are seeing adoption

    I mean, I get why you don’t want to tag identity documents, but why clothing? I can imagine reasons why I might be worried about people knowing what kind of medications I buy, or if I buy cigarettes or booze. But for the most part anyone who wants to know what kind of clothing I’m buying can just, you know, watch me walk out of my house wearing it. Why would clothing be particularly susceptible to privacy issues?

    • ShruggingGalt says:

      Because Big Brother Evil Halliburton Oil Companies will track your movements.

      “You stopped for coffee on your way to your customer. Read my fax! YOU’RE FIRED!”

      Nevermind that you were already checking in at foursquare.

      /this thread is a preview of when Disney puts RFID in their tickets. It’s enroute.
      //still think it’ll be more expensive to get a ticket without one
      ///premium will have interactive experiences throughout the day, like the AA’s mentioning your name

      • Jacquilynne says:

        I didn’t get the impression these were meant to be permanent tags, just hang tags like the price tags. Not things that’d still be there once you were wearing the clothing.

    • eviljamison says:

      I think the concern is that at some point someone (stalkers, corporation, government) may be able to track your movements using the RFID signal – the final nail in personal privacy. Same issue with cell phones, altough I can go out without my cell phone, I can’t go out without clothes…

  13. FatLynn says:

    I don’t think that RFID tags are low cost enough yet to put them in low-value items. I could be wrong, but it adds a lot of expense, which is why my company has shied away from their use.

  14. Putts says:

    Lots of misconceptions coming from the opposition:

    1. Passive RFID tags (the type that you’d see used here) only have a range of a couple of inches. Meaning someone couldn’t just casually walk by your garbage can with a scanner, they’d actually have to dig through your garbage, which leads to:
    2. If someone’s digging through your garbage for price tags, they’ll find out just as much information, if not more, from a printed tag as they would from a RFID tag.
    3. That information will be completely useless unless they have access to Wal-Mart’s RFID database, as a RFID tag basically stores the same information that a barcode would, maybe slightly more detailed, but in the end, it’s just a product number. No personal information would be stored on there.
    4. RFID tags can easily be destroyed with a pair of scissors.

  15. Noadi says:

    There are a couple easy solutions here: #1: have cashiers remove the tags at checkout or #2 put the tags on the clothes hangers that are already removed from most clothing before they’re put in the bag.

    • Christopher Wilson says:

      Clothing hangers are reused for the clothes, and often times at walmart the wrong size is on the hanger, so this would just end up giving mis-information when they put the wrong tag on the hanger. Having the tag on the clothes when its received insures this doesn’t happen.

  16. Talisker says:

    Once I pay for the underoos they are mine, and Walmart doesn’t have the right to scan the RFID tag once I own it. This is tyranny and I’ll call the police on anyone who tries to scan my underwear once I’ve paid for it. Keep your hands out of my boxer briefs, Sam Walton!

  17. MwMike says:

    I’m thinking about how Levis already have the size on the jeans, and of course that leads to the Seinfeld episode of sewing on a label with a different size. So, a new market for fake RFIDs…?

  18. Rachacha says:

    For those who are paranoid about RFID tags, there are several types of tags that are being used:

    1) Active tags – Larger tags that contain a small battery and wireless transmitter that constantly broadcast location and some identifying information. These will likely be used for physical supploes that the store uses like pallet jacks, forklifts, handheld scanners etc so that they can 1 keep an eye on employees and 2 find out where all of their physical assets are in the store.

    2) Battery Assisted Passive tags – These devices are normally off until they receive some external radio frequency stimulation. This external stimulation usually comes from stationary “exciters” that are installed at shipping dock doors and doors so that a retailer can track when merchandise leaves the wharehouse and when it arrives at the local store. When the RFID tag comes in close proximity to these exciters, they turn on and start transmitting their data. Battery assisted tags are often used in automated toll/parking facilities (like EZ Pass)

    3) Passive Tags- Require external stimulation in relatively close proximity to transmit their data. They are already in use for security tags in CDs and DVDs. The only difference with the RFID tags that WalMart is using is that the tags will be embedded with information that tells the item, size, style sku etc and automatically deducts that from store inventory. Also using FRID tags will make store inventory checks easier and more accurate. Rather than having someone physically count each individual item, employees will be able to wave an exciter in front of a rack and get an accurate count of what is on the shelf. Passive tags, because they are cheap and easy to make will be what are used on most products sold in retail stores.

  19. souhaite says:

    Wait a minute – are we taking Katherine Albrecht seriously on this? Are you f’in kidding me? Katherine Albrecht thinks that RFID tags are the mark of the beast – that’s why she’s campaigning against them.

    • jonsheline says:

      For a moment, put aside Albrecht’s apparent religious fanaticism (tough, I know). The Wired article you linked to announces the “Christian” version (2006) of her book “Spychips” (2005). The latter was actually interesting and informative, if somewhat overdramatized in the occasional hypothetical scenarios, because of her research into patents and tech corporations’ r&d.
      The biggest fears set forth in the book, “Spychips” involve a possible not-too-distant future where RFID tags are embedded in literally everything, and networked RFID readers are never more than a few feet away. Consumers would be sold on these ideas, as they would be marketed as the ultimate in convenience.
      It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that “Spychips” has an alarmist tone, but I read it because it actually made me think logically and evenly about the facts that the book put forth, which are based on research in developing tech, how corporations market their products to us, and how these developments change us on a fundamental social level. The trick is to read a book like this without subscribing to the fear of a literal “1984” scenario.
      For now, RFID is still mainly in the retail arena, and there is no centrally located database of info that covers every area of a person’s life. Yet. If we’re worried about RFID tags in our unmentionables (or anywhere else, for that matter), we still have the ability to disable them once we’ve purchased the item.

      • souhaite says:

        It’s the ease of disabling that makes the hysteria so hard to stomach. Crumble the tags when you leave the store. Cut them in half before throwing them away. Hell, sit on your passport the wrong way and the RFID is disabled.

        Worry about the manipulation of advertising techniques. Worry equally about manipulation about advertising techniques – and suspect ulterior motives. The magic bullet theory? Subliminal Seduction?

  20. BigBoat2 says:

    “it would be incredibly easy for someone with the handheld scanner to roll down your street and scan your garbage to get an idea of what you’re buying.”

    Check please.

    • Sumtron5000 says:

      That quote is one of the dumbest things I’ve heard all day. I almost feel bad for making fun of her, because there might be something seiously wrong with her.

  21. AngryK9 says:

    Whether it’s through RFID or through the cash register, someone somewhere is going to know what you bought, when, where, how many and how you paid for it.

    If you want to worry about something, worry about the day when Government realizes they can conscript medical practitioners to secretly implant chips under a newborn’s skin while keeping the parents unaware…

    • eviljamison says:

      Would those be RFID chips perhaps? Thank goodness companies like Walmart are working so hard to create this technology that I’m pretty sure a lot of people can see being misused in future years…

  22. NoThankYou says:

    I don’t see what the big deal is. So what if someone figures out my waist size. I think this will hit those that use Spanx and cover up their true body flaws.

  23. llsee says:

    If these tags help WM improve the speed of their checkout lines, or keep the stores clean I might actually try shopping at WM again. But frankly, when the wait in the checkout line is twice as long as the actual shopping (at best), it just isn’t worth it!

  24. mattlohkamp says:

    this is why I stopped reading consumerist last time – the title is misleading. come on. they’re not going *in* the underwear specifically – they’re included on clothing tags that are *on* (and therefore removable from) a range of clothing and other items, which happens to include underwear. the point about scanning your garbage is valid, but why bring up the personal information thing? Walmart is using the chips for tracking purchases, and they’re not going to load your credit card info onto the chip before you leave.

    seriously. stop encouraging paranoid people, avoid sensationalism, and stick to *real* stories.

  25. TuxRug says:

    If you are so paranoid that you don’t want a rouge hacker to drive down your street and determine whether you prefer Hanes or Fruit of the Loom, just snap/tear the RFID tag after you buy them.

  26. TuxRug says:

    This is why dogs sniff each others’ butts. They just don’t have RFID technology to determine whether Underdog wears underwear.

  27. momtimestwo says:

    Who steals Walmart underwear?!

  28. brianary says:

    This store is trying to set a meatspace cookie.

    [Accept] [Take Home & Microwave‽]

    This government agency is trying to set a meatspace cookie.

    [Accept] [Hit With Hammer*] [Microwave*] [Buy A Thick Metal Wallet]

    * illegal

  29. CookiePuss says:

    Just wrap the Walmart RFID underwear chips in your tinfoil hat before discarding in your trash. This will keep the terrorists from being successful in their drive-by garbage scanning recon missions.

  30. omg says:

    Theoretically this SHOULD be very helpful with inventory management. Walmart stores for years have had a chronic shortage of 2X mens underwear. Like where they have a dozen XL packs in stock and a dozen 3X packs and ZERO 2X packs.

    Turns out if you shop on just the right day – the day they go on the shelves – they do have a dozen 2X in stock, but they sell out fast while the XL and 3X move much more slowly.

    Same problem with 12W tennis shoes – they’ll have a half-dozen 11W and a half-dozen 13W and ZERO 12W unless, of course, you show up on just the right day.

  31. CarnivorousPETA says:

    Solution: throw those pesky RFID tags into your annoying neighbor’s trash.

  32. Jemaine says:

    As long as they don’t find out how often I don’t wash my undies. ;)