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Identifying RFID's Biggest Threats

If end users employ proprietary tag ID schemes—as some are starting to do—the full benefits of RFID adoption may never be realized.
By Patrick King
Mar 30, 2009Longstanding principles regarding the design of RFID chips are currently under attack, and could undermine all of the hard work put into RFID standards to date, as well as the future rapid adoption of radio frequency identification. I'm talking about practices that defy the concept that the Unique Item Identifier (UII) or Electronic Product Code (EPC) must be monomorphic—that is, having a single form or structural pattern—and be assigned by the tag's manufacturer or end user only as a birth record, then locked into tag memory location (Memory Bank 1; the UII memory bank), as specified by the EPC Gen 2 and ISO 18000-6C standards for passive ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) RFID tags.

If my warning sounds ominous, well… it just might be, since communication and misunderstanding are at the root of the problem. Let me build the case slowly, and solve the communication-of-terms issue first.

The Language of an RFID Reader
The interrogator of a passive tag sends out an RF signal in a specific pattern, as dictated by International Organization for Standardization (ISO) standards. This is similar to people speaking German or French or English. The reader basically says "hello" in a particular language, and the tag of the correct design (i.e., language) absorbs that RF signal and reflects back a signal encoded with its own ID serial number. For instance: "Bonjour" would be replied to with "un, deux, trois, quatre", or "Guten Tag" with "eins, zwei, drei, vier." (And, yes, a reader can be programmed to understand multiple types—in this example, languages—but I prefer to use a simple monotype for this example.)

Since the dawning of radio frequency identification—going back to World War II—this has basically been how it has worked: A reader sends out an RF signal, and the tag responds with its identification. When low-frequency (LF) tags emerged in the 1980s for animal tagging, among other uses, followed by high-frequency (HF) tags in the 1990s, they worked by the same principal. The chip had an ID number serially programmed into it by the chip manufacturer. This very important ID number had several features. First, it was serialized and unique to a particular chip (and hence, to the tag) and it was locked at the time of the chip's manufacture, thereby assuring authenticity. Today, the common term for this is a Tag Identifier (TID). As UHF RFID chips and tags emerged in the late 1990s, the TID was as common a feature as it had been for 100 percent of RFID since the Second World War. This notion of TID assigned by the chip manufacturer is an excellent example of a monomorphic unique identifier.

Now imagine you are in the Alps and you try the famous mountain echo. You call out "hello," and the mountain replies "hello ...heellloo ...heeelllloooo...." Now imagine the same experience if you shouted out "hello, ladies and gentlemen, my friends.…" In this case, the mountain would already echo "hello" before you finished your sentence, drowning out your message. This word image is intended to illustrate that in radio electronics, of which RFID is an example, short message units are a key feature to effectiveness. More modern examples are text messaging (SMS) on a cell phone, or conducting searches on the Web. In both cases, simple (shorter) is better.

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