IBM inventor Paul Moskowski modestly admits he's received at least 70 U.S. patents for his inventions. He plans to add one more with the introduction of the Clipped Tag, a radio frequency identification, or RFID, tag that can be altered at the consumer's discretion.

RFID is most commonly used by enterprises to track items on pallets and cases, which gives distributors, manufacturers and retailers a real-time look at the supply chain. Moskowski now is turning his attention to item-level tagging.

“The next logical step is to tag individual items,” he said, while noting the marketplace is still a few years away from widespread adoption. He predicts certain items will be RFID-ready first, such as pharmaceuticals and apparel.

But privacy is a major concern. Fears abound that the data housed on RFID tags left on merchandise — which would have a read range of about 30 feet — could be captured without a person's knowledge. Unlike barcodes, RFID tags contain a serial number. If the serial number is associated with the consumer and housed in a database, he could be identified if he were to come within range of a reader, Moskowski said.

Retailers do have options. Built into the typical tag is the EPCglobal Protocol — an industrywide standard for RFID use — that includes a command that lets users kill the tag at the point-of-sale.

“But then you can't use that tag for returning items,” Moskowski said. “You can't use it for authenticating or refilling pharmaceuticals. So there are disadvantages to killing the tag.”

For Moskowski, the solution to the privacy conundrum was simple: reduce the read range. The Clipped Tag lets users tear the corner of the tag along a perforated line in order to change the read range from a maximum of 30 feet to 1 to 2 inches, Moskowski said.

“In order for the tag to be read now, [a user] would have to hold it right up the reader,” he said.

RFID label producer Marlen RFID currently licenses the Clipped Tag and has built it into paper labels capable of going through printing machines. However, IBM is still seeking additional businesses partners interested in participating in product trials.

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For a video demonstration on how the Clipped Tag works, click here.