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RFID wants to TRACK my TODGER, so I am going to CUT it OFF

Tech tagging horror 'n' itchy collars

By Alistair Dabbs, 19 Sep 2015

Something for the Weekend, Sir? There’s something I’d like to show you in my underpants. Come along, now, don’t be shy. Take a good look.

See how it dangles there getting in the way? And yet, conversely, it’s a little bit stiff, isn’t it? This makes wearing tight underpants pretty uncomfortable, I can tell you. Pass me those scissors and I’ll cut the damned thing off.

Stupid clothing labels.

That relentless, itchy, prickly, scratching sensation as the label saws its edges into your flesh is hardly what you’d call painful. Despite this, it remains possibly the most irritating and distracting sensation that a human can experience in the developed world, second only to having your earlobes repeatedly flicked by the school bully sitting behind you throughout morning assembly.

I have known hardened men and women rendered into emotional wrecks by clothing labels at the back of underwear, shirts, tops, dresses and sweaters.

On one memorable occasion, I was sitting among a group of friends on a train and observed, as the train set off, one of them kept tugging at the collar of his t-shirt. Was there a problem, I asked.

“It’s this bloody new t-shirt,” he said. “I bought it yesterday and the label at the back is cutting into me.”

As the journey went on and skin around the back of his neck became redder with scratching, his discomfort grew increasingly pronounced. Often, he tried and failed to join in with the conversation, each time quickly withdrawing back into his private hell, squirming in his seat, tweaking the t-shirt at the shoulders and grunting.

Then the sweats began. He started fidgeting uncontrollably and tapping his feet. His eyes took on a desperate, crazed stare.

All of a sudden, when he could take it no more, he jumped up with a blood-curdling scream, of which even Ingrid Pitt would have been proud, yanked off his t-shirt in front of everyone and scarpered down the carriage, still stripped to the waist, in the direction of the toilets. I think I may have heard him weeping as he went.

Five minutes later, he wandered back calmly to retake his seat. His face was glowing red, as if freshly washed at a basin – as was indeed the case – and his hair wet and slicked back. He did not rejoin the conversation and none of us asked him what had happened, nor have we mentioned it to him since.

He just sat there beaming with a relieved smile, wearing his t-shirt inside out.

Damn collar labels! This means war

My wife used to titter whenever I attacked a new item of clothing with scissors to get rid of all the stupid labels. It is, one has to admit, odd that such a little thing can be so annoying if left uncircumcised.

Recently, she has begun to change her tune and has observed to me that the labels on newer clothing are getting rougher and scratchier with sharper edges. There seem to be more of them, too, sewn in to various hems hidden all over the item, as if deliberately arranged so that you miss at least one.

On one casual shirt, I found no less than seven labels sewn into the back of the collar alone, occupying a total thickness of 7mm by themselves. What were they for? I have no idea because they were covered in text written in multiple languages, none of them familiar to me.

The washing instructions symbols were printed on a separate label on a side hem, specifically designed to chafe at the waistline.

God knows what material these labels are manufactured from, either. Tungsten carbide? Kevlar? If they made them a little bigger, I’m pretty sure I could use them to slice vegetables.

Top military installations: don’t waste public money on erecting expensive razor wire fences! Just string together a load of t-shirt collar labels! That’ll slice up the peaceniks nicely for you AND provide washing instructions for removing the blood stains afterwards.

Looking into the make-up of clothing labels, though, I discover that at least one label on every item in a fashion store chain contains an RFID chip. And I don’t mean the fist-sized plastic security tag. I mean one of the little cardboard labels strung on by that viciously sharp-ended plastic thread.

Yes, I know I’m behind the times here. RFID labelling has largely supplanted barcoding as a more reliable means of achieving warehouse-to-retail management of such items. Tracking the movement of stock then becomes largely hands-free rather than relying upon the laborious bleeping of barcodes with a reader.

Another thing I learned this week, from Austrian Big Data software company Detego, is that the data captured by fashion brands via these RFID tags can be tracked all the way from the shipping container to the customer’s hands – and potentially further.

It’s now possible, explains Detego’s CEO Uwe Hennig, to use RFID tags to track stock between the backroom and front-of-store not just once a month or once a week or even overnight, but in real time throughout the shopping day, with the store manager checking what’s going on from the comfort of his own iPad.

Nor does the manager have to wait until a purchase has been made to find out what’s happening to his or her stock. Larger retail outlets can use RFID to track what items customers have picked up or have put in their baskets as they browse between floors and wander from one part of the store to another.

There are potential parallels here to the way that shopping centres offer (crappy, virtually unusable) “free” Wi-Fi whose true purpose is to find out which shops you go into and how long you spend in them.

Then, in line with the 100,000-word T&Cs document that you, er, read thoroughly before ticking Agree, you are bombarded throughout the rest of the week with “targeted” spam.

In theory – or it could already be in practice, who knows – an appropriately equipped shopping centre could continue tracking my RFID-tagged purchases after I have paid and left the store and begun strolling off towards the food court.

The shopping centre’s data centre is now spying not just on the movement of my smartphone’s MAC code but also what I have picked up and put down, the newly purchased contents of my shopping bags, and precisely what kind of frilly panties I will be wearing later.

I bought it for a birthday present, constable, honest.

The label rebellion begins

Surely the next step is for an encapsulated RFID chip to be inserted somehow into the sewn-in fabric labels so that the observation can continue long-term.

Following my smartphone and my shopping is one thing (well, two things) but a tracker hidden in an innocuous label could keep tabs on my movements – quite literally – between washes.

Thanks to the glorious new world of tech disruption, in the very near future The Powers That Be will at all times be able to check that I am appropriately dressed as I walk around town.

Indeed, I expect to be able to follow the relative arrangement of the contents of my underwear too; an RFID chip with accelerometer tracking my own todger placement and displaying it to me on my smartphone in a Find My Special Friend app. Real-time updates will keep me informed as to whether it is slung to the left as usual or has made a sudden turn to the right.

Of course, this isn’t going to happen if I keep hacking off the labels with scissors. So I’m hoping this might encourage the rag trade to develop label fabric that doesn’t slice and scrape and scratch and chafe and pull out the hairs at the back of my neck.

You want to track my todger? Tag my nuts? The ball’s in your court. In the food court, probably.

In the meantime, I declare the label rebellion open. Death to clothing tags! Throw off your shackles! Strip away the bonds!

Get naked! ®

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Alistair DabbsAlistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling IT journalism, editorial training and digital publishing. Thanks to his obsession with removing labels from new purchases as soon as he has taken them home, sorting out the clothes after a wash is fraught with error. It is not uncommon for his wife’s clothes to get mixed up in his drawer by mistake. Or perhaps he bought it for a birthday present, constable, honest.

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