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MIT winds down radio tag activity

The university is ending a four-year collaboration with dozens of blue-chip companies that set out to advance a new frontier of information technology known as RFID.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is ending a four-year collaboration with dozens of blue-chip companies that set out to advance a new frontier of information technology known as radio frequency identification.

The Auto-ID Center, the radio frequency identification (RFID) research group that MIT and its industry partners formed in 1999, is disbanding its current form at the end of the month, MIT said. The center was given the task of developing and field testing a new breed of computer network that can track the location of everyday objects, such as razors and shoes, through an elaborate system of radio frequency-emitting microchips and readers.

Auto-ID Center sponsors, including Coca-Cola, Gillette, Target, Home Depot and Wal-Mart, have poured about $20 million into the project since its start, said Kevin Ashton, executive director of the Auto-ID Center.

The university will continue to do RFID research through a new organization, called Auto-ID Labs, Ashton said. The former Procter & Gamble executive is leaving MIT at the end of the month as part of the transition.

The reason for the change is that RFID technology has advanced to the point that the next steps of its development, namely the coordination of technical standards and specifications, go beyond MIT's mission as a research university, Ashton said. MIT handed off the administration of RFID standards and other duties in September to EPCglobal, a joint venture of the Uniform Code Council and EAN International, which oversee global bar code standards. Auto-ID Labs has licensed its RFID technology to EPCglobal (formerly AutoID Inc.), and the fees from that agreement will fund its research, Ashton said.

The winding down of the Auto-ID Center marks the end of a controversial chapter for the vaunted institution of higher learning. The center drew MIT into a heated public relations battle this year when Wal-Mart, Gillette and other Auto-ID sponsors began attaching RFID chips to merchandise sold in stores, sparking intense criticism from consumer-privacy advocates.

Worried that RFID could lead to unprecedented levels of consumer surveillance, privacy activists organized protests and called for boycotts of the companies testing the technology.

While acknowledging the privacy implications of RFID as a legitimate issue, Ashton said he wouldn't do anything differently if he had to do it over again.

"It's a very serious issue, and it needs to be addressed very seriously," he said. "But not all the (media) coverage has been terribly serious, and not all the criticism has come from terribly serious people."

One of the most outspoken critics of the Auto-ID Center has been privacy activist Katherine Albrecht, the head of Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering. She called for worldwide boycotts of clothing retailer Benetton and Gillette after each discussed plans to put RFID chips or "tags" on their products. Albrecht also criticized the Auto-ID Center for trying to downplay the privacy concerns over the technology after finding documents on the group's Web site that contained public relations advice on how to "neutralize opposition" to RFID systems.

Albrecht said the center never took her complaints to heart. "The only thing I have seen is lip service being paid to" these privacy concerns, she said.

In what may be one of its first concrete steps to address the issue, MIT plans to hold an RFID privacy workshop next month. Ashton and his colleagues at the Auto-ID Center helped organize the event, which is sponsored by the MIT Media Lab and another university department, Ashton said.

Despite the controversy, major companies are moving ahead with plans to use RFID systems in stores and in warehouses. Retail giant Wal-Mart, for instance, has a big RFID project under way involving hundreds of its suppliers. And U.K. retailer Marks & Spencer began an RFID trial in one of its London-area stores this month. The shift of RFID out of the halls of academia indicates it's becoming commercially viable technology, Ashton said.

"The thing has gotten too big for the university to handle," he said. "We're not going away, but the transition to this new organization is recognition that the (RFID) system is going live."