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The civil rights group Liberty is to set up a unit to monitor the use of radio frequency identification (RFI) technology by supermarket giants such as Marks & Spencer (M&S) and Tesco. In particular, the use of tiny microchips, the size of a grain of sand, that are inserted into the packaging of goods or sown into the labels of clothes.
According to the new director of Liberty Shami Chakrabarti, the UK is already the world leader in the use of CCTV cameras and is "set to become the surveillance capital of Europe".
"I’ve been away in France for a week and when I arrived home I was amazed to find that in the space of just three days plans had been unveiled to insert RFI chips in every car," said Chakrabarti, adding that M&S had admitted it was trying out chips in clothes while the Home Office disclosed plans to trial a new high-tech, compulsory national ID card. "If anyone had told me two years ago that we’d soon be in a position where it would be normal for many of us to be under 24-hours-a-day surveillance, I’d have told them not to be ridiculous. Now it looks like its happening."
This is the first campaign led by barrister Chakrabarti, who recently took over at Liberty from solicitor John Wadham, who left after eight years with the group to become the deputy chairman of the Police Complaints Authority.
Chakrabarti said that RFI was "an offshoot of military technology", which "enables those controlling it to monitor every aspect of our lives". "Supermarket executives would love to be able to ‘track’ every item of clothing we bought," she continued. "It would enable them to build up customer profiles, which they’d use for specific marketing campaigns.
"The important point is that the technology is too powerful to be unregulated. It cannot be right that corporate giants should be allowed to experiment when and where they want without consumers having any say in what’s happening... If we think a legal challenge can be mounted to stop their experimentation, then we’ll make it."