What is RFID?

Category: Privacy

I understand that RFID involves some sort of computer chip that can identify objects and their locations. What exactly can be tracked with RFID and are there any privacy concerns I should know about?

RFID implant

RFID = Radio Frequency IDentification

RFID is an acronym for Radio Frequency Identification, a technology used for the identification of an object, animal or person. This is achieved using RFID tags or implants (composed of silicon chips and antennae) that are attached to the target. Let's look at some of the uses of RFID:

  • Product Tracking: RFID tags are fast replacing traditional barcodes in products, and are now being used in retail stores, libraries, credit card agencies, identification badges, etc.
  • Passports: With increasing threats to countries from terrorists, governments are going for more sophisticated methods to track the movement of the people who visit their countries. In 1998, Malaysian government started issuing passports which contained RFID tags. These passports are called e-passports. In addition to the usual information recorded on passports, e-passports record other important facts like the travel history and timings of entries and exits from the country. Recently, other countries such as US and UK have also started issuing e-passports with RFID tags.
  • Transportation: Major cities such as New York, Moscow and Hong Kong have been using RFID payment systems to automate the process of fare collection in busy subways and train stations. And most toll highways in the USA now offer "EZ Pass" systems which use a transmitter mounted on the windshield to speed to the collection of tolls.
  • Automotive:The Toyota Prius, Avalon, Camry and Lexus GS have an active RFID chip, able to detect the key approximately three feet away. If desired, you can have the doors automatically unlock, or even start the engine as you approach the car.
  • Animal identification: RFID technology can also be used to find a lost pet, or to manage and track livestock inventories.

RFID: A Human Bar Code?

RFID tag RFID tags, which have been used in animals for some time, are now being used in humans too. In 1998, a British professor named Kevin Warwick implanted a chip in his arm and experimented with it. The use of RFID tags has since grown across the world, raising hopes for improved identification techniques while also sounding privacy alarms.

Applied Digital Solutions (ADS) is the manufacturer of a capsule-shaped device known as the VeriChip, which includes a 125-kHz RFID chip and an electromagnetic coil for transmitting data. They're hoping that individuals will choose to "get chipped", and some people are lining up voluntarily for the procedure.

The Jacbos family in Boca Raton, Florida volunteered in February 2002 to have RFID chips implanted in their bodies, to help them deal with emergency medical situations. Jeff Jacobs says the chip carries important medical information about his heart condition and medications, and also about his son, who is allergic to antibiotics. The chip also contains information about who to contact in case of emergency.

In 2004, the Mexican Attorney General's office implanted a verichip in 18 of its staff members, to control access to a secure data room. In another case, a Brazilian government official came to the United States to be fitted with a personal RFID chip, which would help to locate him in the event of a kidnapping. Even some nightclubs use implantable chips to identify the VIP guests.

Privacy Concerns With RFID

ADS says that RFID chips in humans could help to prevent infant abductions and accidental mother-baby switching, would provide rapid and secure patient identification in emergency situations, and also offer "wander prevention" for residents of long-term care facilities. But politicians and privacy pundits are raising questions about the potential loss of privacy.

Stephen Keating from the Privacy Foundation says that "potential risks appear when a technology is widely adopted, systems build up around it, and it gradually becomes less voluntary." And California State Senator Debra Bowen quipped "How would you like it if, for instance, one day you realized your underwear was reporting on your whereabouts?"

In the future, retailers may use RFID in products to track the purchasing, spending and post-purchase behavior of the consumers. This move has been strongly protested by privacy rights groups, who are concerned that people may not be aware of the chips, or be able to remove them, opening the door to surveillance after the products have been taken home.

Because of concerns about RFID technology being misused, various methods have been invented to shield RFID signals. In most cases, covering the RFID tag with a thick aluminum foil will do the trick. RFID shielding wallets, sleeves and bags are also available. And though it may sound a bit extreme, RFID chips inside credit cards and other items can be disabled by whacking them with a hammer, or nuking them in a microwave oven.

RFID technology has both advantages and disadvantages, and like all new technologies, it can be used for good or evil. Hopefully the politicians, policy makers and product purveyors can come up with a plan to make the best use of this technology while protecting individual privacy.

Got comments about RFID chips or implants? Post your comments below...

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Most recent comments on "What is RFID?"

Posted by:

07 Mar 2007

Whats of bigger concern to me is the unintended consequences. Anything this ubiquitous is bound to have unintended consequences and to suffer from unintended abuse. Some stores here have introduced self-checkouts, using barcodes and a weigh scale under the bag. How much simpler to just walk out the door with your selections and be billed automatically. (I imagine people will still want a final confirmation prior to leaving)

Already I've read stories of shopping centers wired for for RFID to avoid shoplifting but when customers return to the store at a later date wearing any of the bought items, the field will pick them up in the parking lot and track them through the mall. Your underwear concern is already a reality. I've read that Walmart, for example, requires suppliers to include RFID tags in items for faster receiving and inventory.

Its huge advantages and low cost will make it common very quickly. So its good to be aware - you may have to nuke your underwear before leaving the house (laughs)

Posted by:

07 Mar 2007

One thing you forgot to mention re RFID chips is that there are more chips than there are chip readers.One needs a piece of equipment to read the chips and no one talks about that. In other words I think it's still in the future. I also believe it's just another part of our losing our civil rights.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Doesn't it make sense that there are MANY more chips than chip readers? Think about the highway... all those cars with EZ-Pass and only one scanner in each toll booth.

Posted by:

07 Mar 2007

I believe that "big brother" is watching now. This info is what helps to keep us free. Thanx for a great article, I will be watching for now.....

Posted by:

R. Tanenbaum
07 Mar 2007

Remember the movie Minority Report when Tom Cruise got someone else's eyeball implanted so that he could fool the optical scanners? How long before identity thieves start harvesting RFID tags from innocent victims?

Posted by:

28 Mar 2007

The law protecting us? Sure. We've all seen THAT work really well.......after the fact. The problem with that is that your have to be rich enough, smart enough, mad enough and actually be able to prove that you have had your rights abrogated. History has shown that that is very difficult until substantial harm both to individuals and the society they live in has been done. Much better to avoid the pain, don't you think?

Posted by:

Ron Palmer
25 Nov 2007

I'm not sure how practical this is, but I have collected several of these chips from Walmart purchases and carry them with me. Every time I enter or exit Walmart, it sets off the alarm - after the first dozen or so excitements, the "door-guards" have given up on me. Turns out that these same chips also set off the alarms in Ralphs Groceries, Longs Drugs, Home Depot, Orchard Supply Hardware, Sears, and several other stores.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Let me guess... you're not married? I'm sure that before long, they'll figure out a way to automatically raise prices to combat this sort of thing.

Posted by:

09 Mar 2013

Oh, so you're picking and choosing which posts to put on your site? Ridiculous. My only hope is that RFID disappears. For the good of all humanity.

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