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University Launches RFID People Tracking Experiment

Volunteers at the University of Washington are using RFID to track themselves and their personal belongings within a computer science research building. Location data is used to help people find each other, locate lost items, and track how time is spent.
Tags: Privacy
Feb 22, 2008This article was originally published by RFID Update.

February 22, 2008—RFID is serving as the network for the RFID Ecosystem Project, a social networking experiment at the University of Washington in Seattle that is exploring the intersection of the value of tracking systems and the loss of privacy that they can cause.

Faculty, staff, and students are voluntarily being tracked within the university's Paul Allen Center for Computer Science and Engineering, a research facility without classrooms that has been outfitted with approximately 30 RFID readers and 150 antennas. Volunteers carry Gen2 ID tags and can also apply tags to personal possessions. Ten people have been tracking themselves for a year, and project organizers are now recruiting 50 volunteers to expand the data collected and to test new applications.

The readers are networked to a database that participants can access from computers in the facility. Participants use the location data to see where colleagues are in the building, to locate misplaced personal items such as cell phones, PDAs, books, and backpacks, and to improve their personal time management by reviewing how and where they spent their time during the day. The project is completely voluntary and participants can block anyone from accessing their data.

"We are exploring the relationship of privacy and utility," project leader Magda Balazinska, a University of Washington assistant professor of computer science and engineering, told RFID Update. "What we're really trying to do is build better data management systems so people can easily integrate location information with their existing databases and systems."

Privacy concerns are mitigated because participation is completely voluntary, participants control who can access their data, and participants have the option of changing data access or opting out of the program completely at any time.

The project is very exploratory -- readers were installed to cover most of the six-floor facility (bathrooms and some other areas were excluded), and a location database was created to record readings. Participants have a lot of flexibility to use the data and create their own applications. Project leaders developed a find-a-friend application dubbed RFIDer (pronounced "fritter") which is somewhat akin to instant messaging. Participants can set the application to send them text messages or e-mails when friends are nearby.

"It's a convenience thing," said Balazinska. "This is a research facility. People in research are never on time. When starting a meeting, it's very helpful to know if someone has left their office, is in the hallway on the way, is getting coffee, etc."

Balazinska set her system controls so her students can locate her any time, but she does not track students. One professor who is not participating in the project alerted organizers to a potential flaw: even though the professor is not tagged, if tagged students are in his office for a meeting it can be inferred that he is there.

Inference is an important part of the system because read rates have not been good, as low as 30 percent. Read rates are especially low for personal items. A tagged purse may have a cell phone, PDA, car keys, and other metal items inside it, leading to interference.

"When we were in the lab we got excellent read rates, about 95 percent, but once people were using the system without thinking about it, we got much worse data," said Balazinska. "Once RFID is no longer in the supply chain, when it's out in a chaotic environment, read rates are not as good.

"We are trying to develop data management systems so the RFID data can be beneficial even if it is not so accurate. For example, for a location system, we can tell you, 'I don't know exactly where you lost your laptop, but there is a 20 percent chance it is here, a 30 percent chance it is there, etc.'"

The project is being funded by the National Science Foundation, Microsoft Research, and the University of Washington's College of Engineering.

Balazinska is aware of the potential privacy dangers of the project and fully expects to receive criticism. She hopes the research will add new insight to the privacy debate. She notes the project is especially relevant in the state of Washington, which will issue enhanced driver's licenses (see Digimarc Selected to Produce RFID Driver's Licenses) with data stored on Gen2 RFID tags, the same technology used in the RFID Ecosystem Project. There is a bill pending in the state legislature that would make it illegal to wirelessly skim data from the driver's license, according to Balazinska.

Many technology and privacy advocates cried foul when federal government also selected Gen2 technology for its passport card program, which is intended to help border states like Washington streamline border crossings for commuters and other frequent travelers (see US Gov Sets Controversial RFID Passport Card Specs).

See UW's profile of the RFID Ecosystem Project
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