RFID Goes Hollywood

Television and movie directors have latched onto RFID, but the depiction of the technology is often silly and sometimes damaging.
Published: November 30, 2006

Hardly a day goes by anymore when I don’t get a call or an e-mail from someone who has seen radio frequency identification technology depicted on a television show or in a movie. Friends are excited that this thing I’ve been talking about for five years is now becoming part of the mainstream culture. Unfortunately, the depiction of RFID on the large and small screen is often silly and sometimes damaging to consumers’ opinions of the technology.

This week, it was an episode of Law and Order that brought RFID to millions of Americans. In the episode, a husband uses a transponder he secretly embedded in his wife to track her because he suspects she’s having an affair. He then puts RFID interrogators in the doorways of places she frequents. When his suspicions about her having an affair are confirmed, he kills the lover’s wife and frames the lover.

Opponents of RFID will, no doubt, love this, but it has no basis in reality. First, it would be difficult to embed a tag in someone without the person knowing about it. In the show, the murderer drugs the woman before embedding the tag, but one might expect that if a woman is drugged and wakes up with swelling and a mark from an injected RFID tag, she might call the police.

Second, even if you did implant a transponder successfully in someone without her knowledge, it wouldn’t do you much good. Here’s why: It would be hard to install interrogators surreptitiously in doorways. I mean, what do you do—go to your wife’s lover’s house when he’s at work, pry open his door, insert the reader in the lock or doorframe, put the lock or frame back and leave without anyone noticing either your presence or your tampering?

Even if you successfully install interrogators in doorframes, transponders in humans have a very short read range. One company that makes them says 18 inches, but that’s a stretch. Even if you did get that kind of range, you’d have a hard time ensuring that the transponder would be read every time someone passed a doorway interrogator. And then, of course, you’d have to link the interrogator to the Internet. Most doorframes don’t have electric power to run interrogators and wireless Internet devices, and many doorframes are metal, which would block radio waves. But hey, TV writers have never let the facts get in the way of a good story.

RFID also plays a role in Casino Royale, the new James Bond movie, although the technology is never actually mentioned by name. And as in Law and Order, the technology is not portrayed accurately here, either. Early in the film, Her Majesty’s Secret Service injects Bond with a glass-enclosed, rice-sized RFID chip. He asks, “What’s that?” M says, “It’s so we’ll know where you are.”

Of course, there is no way a short-range passive RFID transponder would function as a real-time location device. In one scene, when Bond is in trouble, he seems to place an RFID interrogator over the injected chip to communicate with his superiors. But RFID tags and interrogators don’t work as telecommunication devices. Even if the RFID tag was used to trigger a call on a cell phone or other type of radio, why use RFID to do that? Bond could have used his cell phone’s speed dial to communicate with his headquarters just as quickly—more quickly, even—and the cell-phone system also could have provided location information regarding the call’s origin.

Hollywood can get away with stretching the truth about what RFID can do because only a handful of people know that the portrayal of the technology is wrong. Unfortunately, depictions such as the one on Law and Order predispose consumers to be opposed to RFID. That’s too bad, because the technology has tremendous potential to make consumers’ lives better, easier and safer.