It’s Still RFID to Me

RFID vendor Gemalto claims it’s wrong to call the RFID transponders in e-passports RFID transponders. If it ain’t RFID…what is it?
Published: August 8, 2006

Gemalto, a digital security company based in Amsterdam, announced on Aug. 4 that the United States of America Government Printing Office (GPO) placed its first order with Gemalto, following the firm’s completion of its electronic passport technology qualification. The GPO and the U.S. Department of State evaluated Gemalto’s RFID solution at their testing facilities, and both confirmed that “it fully satisfies the agency’s requirements for privacy protection, security, durability, manufacturing yield, and transaction speed and communications performance. The GPO, on behalf of the U.S. Department of State, plans to incorporate the electronic capability in all new passports to be issued in 2007.”

In pitching this article to journalists, Gemalto’s public relations firm suggested a novel news angle, which was “to correct the record regarding contactless smart-card technology and RFID.” The PR message reads: “It would be incorrect to refer to the e-passport technology as FID. It is contactless smart-card technology, which includes a computer and many security features to protect privacy and identities that are not available in RFID tags.”

So let me get this straight: devices embedded in e-passports use the ISO 14443 RFID air interface protocol to communicate data to a reader, but those devices are not RFID? I guess that’s possible. Let’s look at it a little more deeply:

Contactless technology uses a microchip and an antenna to communicate a unique serial number and other data to a reader, just like RFID—but it’s not RFID because it has an onboard microprocessor and security features. So…if you take an RFID tag and add a microprocessor and security features, it’s no longer RFID.

OK, so then, what is it?

Radio frequency identification clearly has an image problem if even the vendors making the technology are running away from it. The problem is that passive UHF tags with limited memory and limited features are being defined as RFID, perhaps because of broad awareness of retail mandates requiring such tags and broad ignorance about other types of RFID systems, such as active RFID tags and RFID sensors with have microprocessors that can form ad hoc wireless networks.

The answer is not for RFID vendors to run away from RFID technologies. Rather, the solution is for vendors to educate people that RFID tags can be very secure.