In the future, a controversial technology that uses tiny computer chips to identify and track items from a distance will be “on everything from diapers to surgical instruments,” says an executive for a leading corporation.

Pat Rizzotto, vice president of global customer initiatives for Johnson & Johnson, says his company’s long-term vision for RFID, or radio frequency identification, includes having physical objects communicate in real time and extending the Internet into everyday items.

Knowing where the company’s products are at any time promises significant cost savings, better on-shelf availability of products and a more efficient supply chain, he explained at the EPC Global U.S. Conference 2004 in Baltimore this week held by EPC Global, the non-profit organization seeking to adopt a universal technology standard for products.

RFID chips communicate the location and status of the tagged items by radio waves similar to those used to broadcast FM radio programs.

However, privacy advocates express concern over the price society might pay for these benefits.

“RFID radio waves can travel right through solid objects,” said Katherine Albrecht, founder and director of CASPIAN, Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering, a group that has led the opposition to RFID.

“Information on RFID ‘spy chips’ can be read through the things we usually rely on to protect our privacy, like walls, purses, backpacks and even through our clothes,” she said. “It would be a privacy nightmare if we allowed them to be attached to everyday objects.”

CASPIAN was one of more than 40 privacy and civil liberties organizations to call for a voluntary moratorium on the use of RFID on consumer items last November.

“Used improperly, RFID has the potential to jeopardize consumer privacy, reduce or eliminate purchasing anonymity and threaten civil liberties,” the group warns in its position statement.

RFID supporters have discounted the concerns as overblown, emphasizing that the focus of the tracking technology is on warehouse pallets and cases, not consumer goods.

But Rizzotto’s statements suggest the industry is working toward a future in which individual items are chipped and tracked.

“There will be tags and readers everywhere,” he told the standing-room-only crowd.

While Johnson & Johnson is best known for its baby shampoo and Band-Aid bandages, the company also makes birth-control pills, incontinence protection, portable diabetes testing systems and medication for schizophrenia.

Consumers might not want information about their use of these products remotely accessible, the privacy advocates argue.

Research by RFID consulting firm Capgemini found that consumers are uncomfortable with the technology. In its October 2003 study [pdf file] of 1,000 U.S. consumers, “Understanding Their Mindset,” Capgemini concluded, “When it comes to consumer concerns relating to RFID, there’s no question that privacy heads the list … .”

The study reported that “almost seven out of 10 respondents said they were ‘extremely concerned’ about the use of consumer data by a third party; 67 percent were concerned they would be targeted with more direct marketing; and 65 percent were concerned about the ability to track consumers via their product purchases.”

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