White Paper: Radio Frequency Identification

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White Paper: Radio Frequency Identification

In a retail inventory management system, RFID tags placed in or on the
merchandise are picked up by stationary or handheld readers. Details
about the goods are then transferred via router to a database running
on a central server.

The UPC (Universal Product Code) revolutionized inventory management. Wave a scanner in front of a bar-coded item and details about it can be displayed instantly. RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) performs a similar function; however,it can not only store exponentially more data than a UPC but also be updated with new information.

The UPC (Universal Product Code) revolutionized inventory management. Wave a scanner in front of a bar-coded item and details about it can be displayed instantly. RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) performs a similar function; however,it can not only store exponentially more data than a UPC but also be updated with new information.

An RFID system has three components: a microchip for storing data, an integrated antenna (the chip and antenna are collectively known as an RFID transponder or RFID tag), and a reader that retrieves the information stored on the microchip over a wireless connection.

The reader converts the radio waves reflected back from the RFID tag on the unlicensed 2.4GHz frequency band, using a protocol based on the IEEE 802.15.4 standard (the same standard ZigBee home-automation technology is based on). This digital information can then be passed from the reader to a computer.

Most RFID tags are passive, meaning they have no onboard power. They become operable only in the presence of a reader, drawing power from the RF energy field the reader creates while it’s within range. Since they don’t require batteries, passive tags can be extremely small and have a nearly unlimited lifespan. They’re also extremely inexpensive, costing less than 10 cents each when purchased in lots of a million.

An active RFID tag is battery powered and therefore offers considerably more range. These devices can be activated by a low-level radio frequency and generate a high-level signal in response. Active RFID tags are used in the transponders that commuters install in their vehicles to automatically pay bridge fares and turnpike tolls as they pass through a tollbooth.
Both versions of the technology are being used for asset and inventory tracking, automated payment systems, military and commercial container shipments, retail shelf stocking, automobile and building locks, and much more. Proponents see a future in which you’ll go to the gym, flash a tag, and automatically engage in a personalized, fully guided exercise regimen. Soon, RFID may be in your credit cards and embedded in your cash, too. And the technology isn’t reserved merely for inanimate objects. There’s a good chance you’ve eaten a steak from a steer whose life path from the ranch to the meat-packing plant was tracked by an RFID tag attached to its ear.

Unlike a barcode, the data stored inside an RFID tag can be rewritten, and the chips inside the tag can store as much as 2KB of data—a staggering amount of information compared to the 10B to 20B that a barcode can harbor.

We're Reading You Reading Us

The consumer-research firm Mediamark Research and Intelligence (MRI) is experimenting with RFID to measure how long readers linger on the pages of a magazine. Since it would be impossible to embed a tag in every page of every magazine, MRI is using electromagnetic sensors and patches paired with conductive ink on the covers and key pages of a sampling of magazines. The magazines are then inserted into semi-rigid plastic jackets, with active RFIDs attached to the rear covers. The magazines used for this study were then placed in waiting rooms throughout New York City. (Don’t worry, Maximum PC was not part of this study.)

The RFID has an internal clock that can measure how long each of the key pages, and the magazine as a whole, remains open. As the patch comes into contact with the sensor (when the page is turned or the entire magazine is closed), the RFID records that page number and the total time it was open. An RFID reader inside the waiting room will later establish a wireless connection with the RFID tag, retrieve the information stored within it, and transfer it to a PC.

I Spy

If the prospect of someone monitoring how much time you spend reading a magazine creeps you out, imagine having an RFID transponder embedded in your body. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved such an application—the Applied Digital Solutions’s VeriChip—in 2004. The VeriChip contains a 16-digit number that correlates to information stored in a central database and is used to identify an individual.

But with its vast capacity, an RFID device inside you could store not just your name and address, but everything from your marital status to your ethnicity, height and weight, hair and eye color, blood type, and health status—even what model car you drive.

Google rakes in billions of dollars in revenue by displaying ads targeted to your search queries. Imagine how much advertisers would pay for ads that could be aimed specifically at you—á la Minority Report—taking all of your personal information into account to craft the ultimate custom message.

Take the sci-fi element out of the equation and there’s still reason to worry about RFID technology endangering privacy rights. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is spearheading several anti-RFID initiatives, including one to prevent school districts from tracking students using RFID.

“We’re not against RFID as a whole,” says EFF senior staff attorney Lee Tien. “I have RFID-controlled car locks, and it’s great. We’re concerned that RFID technology is promiscuous and persistent. Tags can contain personal information such as credit card numbers and addresses, often unencrypted, which can be read by any compatible reader. There’s no challenge-response authentication. It’s not necessarily government or big business—it’s the fact that you’ll be exposed to this level of scrutiny.”
Such efforts are unlikely to stop the proliferation of RFID, but they will help raise public awareness—and that should prevent the most egregious abuses of the technology.

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