Boston: A privacy group is blasting a unit of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for its PR plans for a controversial product-ID technology and other internal documents labeled confidential that were posted on its public website.
The Auto-ID Center at MIT is a research operation that has looked at the development of ID tags that use radio-frequency transmissions to tell retailers where products are. Retailers such as Wal-Mart are considering using the tags to improve inventory control.
But privacy advocates have sounded alarms about the tags, fearful they could be used to track consumer buying habits and product usage even after items are brought into homes.
Fleishman-Hillard has been working with the center, providing advice about addressing privacy concerns and winning public acceptance for the devices, known as RFID tags.
Earlier this month, New Hampshire-based Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering (CASPIAN), discovered Fleishman documents marked confidential on the center's website.
The group took the news to the media, and coverage in The Boston Globe and Associated Press quickly followed.
"Their claims about being concerned with privacy are ringing a little hollow," said Katherine Albrecht, founder of CASPIAN. "Everything was on their website, practically down to notes to the janitor."
The Auto-ID Center's inability to keep its own information private shows its lack of concern for privacy, Albrecht said, adding that the tone of Fleishman's recommendations for winning public acceptance of the RFID tags was "patronizing."
Among Fleishman's recommendations in a document on external communications is to "convey inevitability of technology." It also talks about developing a plan that "neutralizes opposition," a phrase Albrecht found offensive.
Kevin Ashton, executive director of the center, said the documents were meant to be public. They were marked confidential because they were first showed to center sponsors before being made public.
Fleishman SVP and senior partner Marianna Deal said that while the firm didn't anticipate its recommendations would be made public, it doesn't object.
"We develop presentations and materials that we are perfectly comfortable with being public," she said.
Ashton said he doesn't think this controversy will damage the center's reputation. "We have always been proactive and been public," he said. The center is concerned about privacy issues, and will continue talking about them, he said.