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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.
By Mark Roberti
Aug 30, 2010Anyone 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.

I've seen many articles on privacy that confuse the secure, short-range HF tags used in passports and the longer-range UHF tags (which do not yet support security features) utilized in PASS cards. Most people equate RFID with passive UHF technology, because that was what got a lot of media attention when Wal-Mart Stores announced plans to use it (see Wal-Mart Relaunches EPC RFID Effort, Starting With Men's Jeans and Basics).

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.


Amy Thropp 2010-09-02 03:31:03 PM
RFID in Libraries I work for a Library RFID developer. We see this type of paranoia all the time. Questions we get are typically: 1. Can someone tell what I'm reading by scanning the tag? (No - no bibliographical data is stored on the tag, only the item id and you'd have to have access to the library's database to find out what that was.) 2. Can someone identify me by scanning the tag? (No - no biographical data is stored on the tag.) 3. Can someone follow me by scanning the tag? (No - RFID is not a GPS) So much mis-information.
Jim DelRossi 2010-09-03 02:00:10 PM
Excellent Call to Action Nice call, Mark. It is baffling that there is a constant reiteration of old myths and half truths without any reasonable fact checking with actual "sources". Probably good places to start are: 1) Commenting to the mistaken writers about better sources (RFID Journal springs to mind) and 2) responsible editing and annotation of Wikipedia pages since that appears to be the well often visited for these fouled waters.
JIGNESH PARIKH 2010-09-03 02:57:14 PM
RFID MISCONCEPTION I fully support your article & understand your frustration, but I thing that this misconception will go away once RFID becomes mass product. Today RFID suppliers sell their product at exuberant rate that we integrators never go beyond quotation & pilot level.
Vanwyck Richardson 2010-09-12 01:53:59 AM
Small Business Conspiritor Mark, you hit all the salient points, yet one contributing factor you may not have considered. I've noticed, just like the infant computer business in the eighties, many of the Dealers and Re-sellers get into the newest technological stuff thinking to hustle people with 'sizzle' as opposed to steak and get 'big' money for doing just the hustle; not providing a well- crafted and thought-out technological solution. It's as though the Marketing Department for the entire RFID industry works in the "Dilbert" comic strip and no one really understands the product yet tries to compete by trashing the other guy or his idea. Remember, anything I say may or may not be valid, As a past Purchasing Director who signed the first Franchise Distribution contract with Cyrix processors for the US, (the CPU David that went up against the Goliath, Intel), misinformation and deceit can become not only marketing tools for the sharks, but become a serious cancer that can grow from the inside that same shark and kill it dead. Some of it is can just be credited to braggadocio; the salesman or Exec who doesn't have a clue and couldn't buy a vowel with a pocket full of money. This is why I can't wait to start my own RFID Consulting business; I have a clue and know where all the free vowels can be found. Wish me luck, VanWyck
Ian Shelley 2010-09-16 01:13:49 AM
Managing Director ARN (SB) Pte Ltd I don't think this paranoia or stupidity will go away just because the technology becomes widely used (it is already). I do think we need to be robust in our challenges to the paranoid and stupid, especially when they pretend to know about security and are in a position to sway opinion against the industry. In one of many such discussions I asked someone why he thought governments would really be interested in waterproof RFID tags to track the brand of washing machine and detergent washing his CKs with other female undergarments? Beats me, and he couldn't figure it out either, but he was nonetheless worried that one day RFID would betray him.
Mark Roberti 2010-09-16 10:32:22 AM
All Good Thoughts I agree with many of the comments above. Some concerns will go away as the technology becomes clearer, some won't. As an industry, we need to be careful about campaigns to change opinion. That can look like an effort to sell consumers something that is not good for them. I believe RFID will benefit consumers, so I advocate the industry talking about these issues, as well as addressing them with technological solutions.

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