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IP Addresses For Coke Cans?

VeriSign is quickly making plans to hook every can of Coke -- and box of screws and shirt -- into the Internet.

The digital security company and domain registrar Friday said its EPC Network Services Suite, to be unveiled September 15, could give every product its own IP address, so that manufacturers and retailers could identify each individual can of soda or GAP shirt. EPCs, or electronic product codes, would give a unique number to each item manufactured.

"Historically, the supply chain has been a closed loop network," VeriSign director of EPC product management Jon Brendsel told internetnews.com. "Our vision is to take that and run it over the existing public Internet infrastructure. We can launch this right on top of the existing DNS naming system, and it works."

Mountain View, Calif.-based VeriSign, which provides technology and services for Internet and telecommunications infrastructure, could have an advantage in getting the program up and running as it also manages the registry for the .com and .net domains.

VeriSign said it will demonstrate its EPC Network at the EPC (Electronic Product Code) Symposium, held in Chicago September 15 through 17. The company says that combining RFID technology and the existing public Internet infrastructure will let businesses track and trace products through the supply chain, giving suppliers and retailers -- and, potentially, anyone else who uses the network, a view of the product from the raw material to the shelf.

RFID tags are tiny transponder that can communicate at short distances with reading devices. They carry a unique number, which can be understood by matching it with a database. So, in the Coke example, an RFID tag on a can could automatically signal the bottler when it went through the loading dock door, when it went onto a truck, off the truck, into a warehouse, onto a forklift, onto a shelf in the store, and out the door in a shopping bag.

WalMart , the world largest retailer, has mandated the use of the RFID radio tracking technology by all of its suppliers by 2005, and many other large retailers outfits are expected to follow its lead. RFID technology could automate many inventory and tracking process, automatically logging the movement of goods and sending that info directly into electronic business systems.

VeriSign said its EPC Network will have three parts: The ONS Registry is a master directory of product IP addresses, similar to the DNS registry. EPC Information Services are databases maintained by individual entities in the supply chain. The Coke bottler would maintain one that matched a can's RFID tag to information about its production. The distributor might maintain a separate EPC Information Services database, linking that same RFID tag to different info within its own database. The EPC Services Registry would be a sort of Google for the supply chain, allowing businesses to search for information services within the network.

"The EPC Network as whole provides a mechanism for anyone in the supply chain to discover all of that information in its entirety without necessarily knowing who had [the product] beforehand," Brendsel said. VeriSign is rounding up large retailing partners for a pilot to begin this fall. It hopes to launch the service in the second quarter of 2004.

While there's not a crying need to track individual cans of soda, applying this technology to high-value products or those with expiration dates could reduce waste and loss through theft, either at the pallet level or in the store. Gillette and UK supermarket chain Tesco tested embedding tags in packages of razor blades and using RFID tags to trigger a camera when a package was removed from the shelf.

Privacy advocates howled when they got wind of such tests and Tesco stores were beset by demonstrators. Last month, a California Senate subcommittee held an initial hearing on privacy issues relating to RFID technology. This universal registry is just what they fear: It could give let manufacturers track their shopping habits even better than they do now, and even let third parties find out purchase information.

VeriSign vice president of directory services Brian Matthews said that his company already has products and services that could provide authentication and security over the EPC Network.

"We will definitely need a very flexible trust and authorization framework to overlay this," he said, "Something that lets trading partners specify which entities have access to their data or to authorize partners to in turn authorize others to share it."

Matthews also pointed out that retailers also could erase the tags at point of purchase.

Brendsel and Matthews said that unlike in the commercial Internet, where companies that want to have a presence have no choice but to conform to the domain name system, the EPC Network would be an optional tool and might have competitors.

"If we can come up with an open system that's economical and that lets a smaller company play with the likes of Walmart," Matthews said, "that's all to the good."