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Scottish Startup Promotes Silent Tags

A system developed by Friendly Technologies uses the privacy mode found in NXP's Icode and Ucode chips to keep tags from being read by unauthorized parties.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Sep 03, 2009Friendly Technologies, a startup company based in Aberdeen, Scotland, has developed what it claims is a means by which RFID technology can be used in the retail industry without compromising high standards for security or consumer privacy.

Friendly Technologies employs off-the-shelf passive RFID tags and interrogators, but uses them in a novel way and with the aid of a software platform it developed in-house. Rather than interrogating the RFID tags in order to collect the unique code encoded to each tag's memory, Friendly Technologies' Silent Tag software queries a group of tags by broadcasting their passwords and asking the tags to respond affirmatively when their numbers are broadcasted. To accomplish this, the company employs RFID tags that utilize NXP Semiconductors' chips—either the Icode for high-frequency (HF) passive tags (compliant with the ISO 14443 standard), or the Ucode for ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) tags (compliant with ISO 18000-6C and EPC Gen 2 standards). These chips have a special function known as a privacy mode, in which the chip is set to respond only when a password is presented, rather than respond to any reader that tries to interrogate it.

Humberto Morán
In the case of tags carrying the Icode chip, the passwords are assigned to the chip's memory at the point of manufacture, and cannot be altered, so an end user would not have the ability to assign its own password to those HF tags. With UHF tags carrying Ucode chips, however, an end user has more flexibility. It could choose to use a unique chip ID embedded in the chip memory as the password, or to select and assign its own unique password, using Friendly Technologies' software. However, says Humberto Morán, Friendly Technology's founder, the company plans to develop its own RFID tags in the long run, using printed chips that would be customizable so customers could choose either a fixed password or assign their own password to each chip.

In a retail environment, as envisioned by Friendly Technologies, products are tagged at the item level and the entire store—from the back room to the sales floor—is divided into zones, with an RFID interrogator assigned to each zone. As products are tagged and entered into inventory, each item is assigned to a zone within that location. The Friendly Technologies software manages the network of readers and associates a list of tag privacy passwords to each zone. The interrogator in each zone continuously polls that zone by making a query for each tag using the tag's privacy password—essentially, taking attendance of the population of tags within its interrogation zone. If any tag assigned to the zone does not respond, the software instructs the readers in the adjacent read zones to poll for that tag until it is located, at which point it is associated with that new zone. Using this approach, the software can track the movement of tagged items from one zone to another.

Only readers networked into the Friendly Technologies software platform in that store would have access to the database of tag privacy passwords. Therefore, if a third party were to bring an RFID reader into the store, it would not be able to read the tags or track their movements within that location.

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