Consumers Want RFID

By Mark Roberti

As privacy concerns are addressed, consumers are beginning to seek radio frequency identification solutions to track their belongings, connect with friends and improve city services.

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There was a time, not too long ago, when radio frequency identification was considered by many consumers to be an evil technology conjured up by corporate titans and government agencies to track individuals—wherever they went, whatever they did and, of course, whatever they bought. Today, however, consumers are finally learning to appreciate the benefits that the technology can deliver.

The dislike of RFID was driven, in part, by privacy advocates who raised some legitimate—and some very far-fetched—concerns about how RFID might be abused. Mass-media outlets, always looking for a good story regardless of the truth, hyped these concerns and led people to fear RFID.

However, consumers are now waking up to the fact that they live in a world in which Web cameras can be hacked to show their personal lives (see F.T.C. Says Webcam’s Flaw Put Users’ Lives on Display), inexpensive GPS devices can be used to track their movements (see Private Snoops Find GPS Trail Legal to Follow), and the U.S. National Security Agency regularly captures information about their cell phone calls and e-mail (see N.S.A. Said to Search Content of Messages to and From U.S.), and can even read their encrypted documents (see N.S.A. Able to Foil Basic Safeguards of Privacy on Web). RFID is looking pretty benign by comparison.

At the same time, a variety of innovations have been built into passive ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) tags and Near Field Communication (NFC) systems to protect consumers against abuses of RFID technology. But it’s not just the fact that consumers are less fearful of RFID—they are also beginning to realize that the technology can be beneficial in myriad ways.

NFC is catching on as a way to obtain information and pay for some low-cost items. The technology allows users to pair phones in order to share movies, pictures and playlists. There are now NFC-enabled speaker systems, for example, that can be paired with smartphones to allow you to play your music. In the upcoming November-December 2013 issue of our digital magazine, we will examine how consumers are employing RFID and NFC to connect with friends and family members during activities and at events, via social media.

I am also receiving a growing number of questions from consumers through our Ask the Experts forum. During the past week, I received a request from someone seeking an RFID system that he could use to always find his new, expensive smartphone, as well as another from a woman looking for an RFID system that could track how many times her ailing grandfather used a ventilation machine. A third person, meanwhile, wondered if there was a system that could alert him, via his smartphone, if his child wandered away in a crowded department store.

Unfortunately, none of these solutions exist in a package that consumers can buy, though some companies have begun to look at products for consumers. Blogger Beth Bacheldor recently wrote about a product called Tile, which utilizes the Bluetooth connection in a mobile phone to enable consumers to track their belongings (see Who Says RFID Tags Pose a Privacy Risk or Are Too Costly?). And there are a bunch of similar startups using crowd-funding sites to launch their company (see RFID News Roundup: Ring Theory Develops Smart Rings for Boston Subways, Raises Thousands on Kickstarter).

But what do exist are RFID systems to improve city services and the quality of life for residents. The cover story for our November-December issue will examine “smart city” initiatives in Europe.

It has always been my contention that there would be many consumer applications for RFID. The demand is clearly there, and entrepreneurs and city leaders are starting to respond. It’s a beautiful thing.

Mark Roberti is the founder and editor of RFID Journal. If you would like to comment on this article, click on the link below. To read more of Mark’s opinions, visit the RFID Journal Blog, the Editor’s Note archive or RFID Connect.