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IBM Proposes Privacy-Protecting Tag

Company researchers claim consumers could reduce a passive tag's read range while retaining its operability.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Nov 07, 2005Two IBM researchers have created a new approach to addressing privacy concerns surrounding passive RFID tags attached to goods in the consumer supply chain, through what they've dubbed a clipped-tag design.

At this week's Conference of Computer and Communications Security, hosted by the Association for Computer Machine (ACM) in Alexandria, Va., IBM researcher Paul Moskowitz presented a paper describing the tag design and how it could be used. Along with IBM researcher Günter Karjoth, based in IBM's Zurich research lab, Moskowitz coinvented the clipped-tag concept and coauthored the paper on clipped tags presented at the ACM event.

RFID tags with removable electrical conduits: (A) tag with connected antenna, (B) tag with disconnected antenna.

With the clipped design, consumers would be able to alter the antenna length on a purchased item's tag to reduce its read range significantly. The tag would still be functional, however, and could therefore be used to identify the product for warranty or item-return purposes. Moskowitz says this design would address both consumers' interest in protecting their privacy, and merchants' and manufacturers' interest in keeping the tag usable.

Moskowitz holds 20 patents related to RFID and represents IBM on EPCglobal's hardware action group. He says there are a number of different designs through which the basic principal of the clipped tag could be deployed. In one design, a small strip of printed electrical conductor would link the chip and a short portion of the tag's antenna to the larger part of the antenna. To attenuate the tag's read range, a consumer would scratch off this printed conductor with, say, a penny, just as someone would scratch off the covering of a lottery ticket or prepaid phone card.

Another approach would be to build a perforation line into a tag's substrate, along with a tab that a consumer could pull to remove a portion of the tag's antenna, leaving the chip and a small portion of antenna behind. As a third alternative, part of the tag's antenna could be printed on a removable substrate that a consumer would peel off to reduce the tag's antenna.

RFID tag with perforation.

With the clipped-tag design, Moskowitz estimates, one could reduce a passive EPC tag's read range from a few meters down to 1 to 2 inches. This would make it extremely difficult to read tags within a person's possessions discretely, because someone with a handheld reader would need to come extremely close to the tags. Should a person attempt to use an amplified, high-power interrogator to read a clipped tag, Moskowitz believes the read range might be boosted to 3 to 6 inches.

To IBM, addressing privacy concerns and discovering ways to protect privacy are very high priorities, explains Harriet Pearson, IBM's chief privacy officer, which is why IBM supports the development of tools such as the clipped tag. "Technology should enable protection of privacy," Pearson says, who adds that IBM works closely with its partners to study how consumer and/or employee privacy might be compromised through deployments of new technology or business processes.

IBM also has an RFID privacy practice within its business services organization, which offers privacy-related consultation to end users or prospective end users of RFID (see IBM Announces RFID Privacy Consulting).

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