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Where the RFID Industry Has Failed
There is still a great deal of misunderstanding regarding what the technology is and does—and how it might be abused—that the industry needs to address.
Aug 30, 2010—Anyone reading my blog recently knows that I'm frustrated by some of what is being written and said about radio frequency identification. While I believe reporters and researchers have a duty to get their facts straight, the reality is that the RFID industry can't depend on that happening. It's up to the industry to educate people if it wants the technology to be more widely adopted. Here are the key falsehoods that I believe need to be addressed.
All RFID is the same. Potential end users, journalists and others do not understand that there are vast differences in the performance and uses of passive high-frequency (HF) tags, passive ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) tags and the many types of active RFID tags. During an interview with a journalist, I was asked about implantable tags. I said they were passive LF tags that had a read range of approximately a foot, so they could not be used for tracking. His response: "Yes, but I've heard there are new active tags that have a read range of 300 feet or more." I then had to explain that you could not implant an active tag with a battery in a human being.
RFID is invisible. One of the things that worries people most about RFID is the idea that governments and/or corporations will embed transponders in documents, clothing and other items, and then track individuals without their knowledge. Opponents of the technology often say the tags can be hidden. Yes, tags can be hidden—but that does not mean RFID can be hidden. That's because RFID readers emit energy to power up passive tags so that they can respond with their serial number.
Let's say, for example, that a corporation embeds tags in shoes in an effort to identify and track customers in its retail stores via reader antennas in the floor. Any suspicious hacker or journalist could use a reader bought online to show energy is being emitted from the floor at the precise UHF frequencies used by RFID systems. They could also detect hidden tags in clothing by pointing the reader at their closet. A retailer caught using RFID without informing customers would face an enormous PR nightmare. (I would like to point out that cameras can be hidden behind mirrors, and there is no way to detect those.)
Reading a tag is equivalent to infringing privacy. In almost all cases, you can not identify a person by reading an RFID tag. That's because tags only carry serial numbers linked to identities in secure databases. I can think of two exceptions. Some older RFID-enabled credit cards have the person's name and credit card number stored on the transponder—but that's the same information on a credit card that you hand over to a worker at a store or restaurant. The tag in a passport does contain some personal information, but in response to security concerns, many passports now have a foil liner to prevent someone from skimming this information.
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