RFID Tags vs. Bluetooth Trackers in the Privacy Debate

By Jon Guy

Organizations considering asset-tracking options must take into account a system's effectiveness and ensure the privacy and safety of employees.

For years, the notion of a tiny, global tracking device has been viewed as the ultimate tool for verifying the locations of critical business assets. Thanks to the prevalence of tracking devices in action movies, as well as misconceptions regarding the technology behind GPS, there has been a wide gap between fiction and the reality of available "track-anywhere" devices.

The dystopian privacy issues of tracking devices in films have so far not become an everyday reality. That being said, privacy is indeed a global concern, with governments worldwide regulating the balance between the need for asset tracking and personal privacy rights. When looking at the two tracking options—Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) and radio frequency identification (RFID)—the privacy issue is a certain consideration.

Jon GuyBLE-based asset trackers promote the benefit that any smartphone can read their location, providing a GPS-located network of billions of readers. A major drawback is privacy. With a BLE tracker on that corporate laptop in your backpack, your location is known to your employer. Additionally, since any phone can receive the periodic BLE beacon, applications are available to associate a tag with an individual.

On the other hand, 433 MHz active RFID tags use fixed readers, typically located only at points of interest, such as offices or entry and exit points. While in range of a reader, 433 MHz tags provide real-time location information. Once they are out of range of fixed readers, however, the owner preserves their privacy. For many situations, 433 MHz active RFID strikes the right balance between protecting a company's physical and digital assets and preserving individual privacy.

For decades, companies wanting real-time asset tracking have used active RFID systems, which are extremely effective, with a battery life that can exceed seven years, excellent range and reliability, and diverse form-factors for a range of applications. Recently, with new tracking devices such as Apple AirTags, ubiquitous tracking has finally been a viable consideration for asset tracking. By employing smartphones as GPS-located readers, BLE tags get very close to "works-anywhere tracking," billed as a great way to track your keys and wallet. With the addition of ultra-wideband (UWB) radio, distance and direction are enhanced to give location better than a few meters.

Problematically, the more effective and widespread the tracking technology is, the greater the problem of personal privacy. While various measures can be employed to add a degree of anonymity, all trackers inherently allow a degree of third-party tracking. Since Apple launched its Bluetooth trackers in 2021, they have been used for nefarious acts—particularly stalking, as Sports Illustrated model Brooks Nader can attest to. Attempts at solutions have so far not resolved the problem.

For example, Apple now has a feature that detects if you may have a tracker planted on you. This results in a low-tech beeping alert which is fairly effective, as long as the stalker has not already disabled the speaker. For Android users, the Apple-provided app must be open to detect potential stalking—and if you aren't carrying a phone at all, that privacy feature is of no use.

Organizations considering asset-tracking options must not only take into account the system's effectiveness, but also ensure the privacy and safety of employees are not compromised. What was once a matter of finding the best technical solution is now complicated by privacy concerns and human factors. With a BLE tracker on a corporate laptop, an employer has the information it needs to monitor and potentially recover a lost asset. But privacy violations can occur at multiple levels. If the employee has the item in their possession, their after-hours location is known to the employer as well.

Let's consider a technology company with a flexible work policy for its personnel. There are employee-assigned laptops, additional laptops for software testing, and other computing equipment that moves around. The IT manager runs a quarterly report to view which assets have been detected at least once at an office location, as well as which ones might be missing completely. Asset systems utilizing network monitoring provide a good metric—but only if the device is powered on.

To address this problem, the IT manager might consider BLE trackers, which offer the benefit of tracking almost anywhere. However, this is when inevitable privacy issues arise, especially with personally assigned laptops, as the IT manager can now track the worker as that individual places the computer in a backpack and heads to the gym, then to home, a coffee shop or a doctor's office.

This brings us back to considering non-BLE active RFID tags, typically operating at 433 MHz. In the above scenario, a simple 433 MHz RFID system with reader coverage across corporate facilities gives IT managers useful information while protecting the privacy of employees once they leave the office. Unlike BLE, 433 MHz active RFID tags utilize fixed readers, typically located only at points of interest, such as offices or points of entry and exit.

While in range of a reader, 433 MHz tags provide real-time location information, but once they go beyond the range of fixed readers—typically 100 meters (328 feet)—laptop owners preserve their privacy. Of course, 433 MHz active RFID tags can be illicitly read using a suitable reader; however, the privacy risk profile of a few read points is very different than that of a BLE reader network consisting of millions of GPS-enabled phones. Having contained reader infrastructure is an inherent privacy benefit.

Like anything security-related, the situation is evolving. For now, at least, the privacy concerns around phone-based trackers have persisted. For many scenarios, 433 MHz active RFID should still be a consideration when companies select asset-tracking solutions that balance protecting a business's assets and preserving individuals' privacy. Long-term, the privacy issues of tiny global tracking may be insurmountable, but never bet against technology to evolve, innovate and solve.

Jon Guy serves as the VP of engineering for RF Code. With more than two decades of experience, he has worked with companies such as Texas Instrument and Silicon Labs. Guy earned degrees from the Manukau Institute of Technology. You can connect with him on LinkedIn.

Exhibitors at RFID Journal LIVE! 2022 will offer RFID, BLE and other solutions for tagging assets. To learn more, visit the event's website.