RFID: Challenging Current Capabilities, Challenging Our Thinking
- By Raegen Pietrucha
- Jun 01, 2012
A set of nested metal frames that gives the illusion of a flattened pyramid hiding a treasure inside. This is what generally springs to mind when people hear the term “RFID,” or radio frequency identification. But RFID is far more complicated than that image or description, and while it’s been around for almost 25 years, the applications for RFID have only recently become more varied and complex — creating some serious consequences to consider as we move forward with this technology.
But before we can understand why RFID is so controversial today, we first have to know how it works. That sticker-esque thing, for example, is only one part of the whole RFID equation: the tag, wherein data sits, waiting to be read. But how does data get into the tag? It’s customized and put in there, said Mark Hibbard, principal at Eastport Engineering — and usually in larger amounts than most bar codes, for which reasons, RFID has become a particularly attractive technology. “Most RFID tags do not contain any data after they are manufactured; they are similar to a blank label waiting for information to be printed on them,” he said. “To place information in the tag, an RFID encoder must be used.” According to the RFID Journal, RFID tags come in three storage types — read-write, read-only and write once, read many — that can be attached, implanted, inserted or even digested; which type a company ultimately chooses depends on what it plans to use RFID for.
It logically follows that the other component of RFID would have to be a device that reads, or decodes, the information contained in this tag. This decoder, typically powered by a battery, sends out electromagnetic energy that’s received by all RFID tags within its range (if they’re on the frequency that that particular reader is set at), the tags send radio waves back to the decoder, and the decoder then translates those waves into data, Hibbard explained. “The majority of RFID tags operate at either 13 MHz or 900 MHz,” he said. “Think of these two frequencies as the AM and FM bands on your radio. Each one has its advantages. For instance, one works better when surrounded by metal, while the other will work better over long distances.”
Depending on the distances the electromagnetic pulses can travel as well as where they derive their energy from, tags fall into one of three categories: active, semipassive and passive. According to “How RFID Works” by Kevin Bonsor, Candace Keener and Wesley Fenlon, active tags use their own built-in batteries to communicate with a decoder and have a range of 100 feet; semipassive tags have the same range but rely on the reader’s power for communications; while passive tags similarly depend upon the decoder as their power source but only have a range of 20 feet (subsequently making them the least expensive option of the three).
What is RFID used for, anyway?
As RFID technology has evolved, so has its uses. “Before 2000, common uses for RFID (were) toll road passes, access ID cards and the tiny ID chips that are inserted in animals and people for identification purposes,” Hibbard said. Today, RFID goes a step beyond mere identification to “location awareness,” he said. The world is currently seeing bio-tracking’s reach, for example, extend from being used only on herd/feed animals to domesticated ones as well. RFID in the form of “microchips the size of a grain of rice” are being implanted into pets, reuniting them with their owners if lost or stolen, Bonsor, Keener and Wesley indicated. These authors also highlighted a similar human application: a “VeriChip” that, worn on a baby’s ankle, can alert hospital staff if anyone tries to remove the child from the premises.
However, RFID is most commonly used to gain location awareness of inanimate objects. Hibbard provided a scenario of how RFID-marked products can be traced and data manipulated accordingly: “When the forklift operator raises a pallet full of goods, the onboard flat-screen display shows exactly what’s on the pallet and tells the operator where the goods should be stocked,” he said. “As merchandise or pallets of cartons are moved in through the loading dock door, the RFID reader scans the entire shipment, and the inventory database is immediately updated. No time is lost in hand-counting, and the RFID scan doesn’t suffer from human error.”
RFID has already made its way into the smaller-scale version of this scene: retail stores. “RFID readers (have been) built into the shelves in the stockroom or on the retail floor, (so) when customers or stockroom workers remove products from the shelves, the inventory database is immediately updated, … (because) the ‘smart shelves’ talk back to the in-building Wi-Fi network,” Hibbard said. “Perhaps if more than four of the same retail product are removed at the same time, it could mean someone was shoplifting!”
But there are bigger plans than this in the works for RFID in the retail arena, for one. Glover Ferguson, chief scientist for Accenture, detailed his vision in a talk summarized in the RFID Journal article titled “Today’s Reality, Tomorrow’s Promise”: “Combin(ing) RFID with sensors, … objects can not only identify themselves but tell you how hot they are, how much they weigh and so on.” Expanding further on this idea, Bonsor, Keener and Wesley described a world in which RFID-tagged food items send data to your phone about their prices and expiration dates, you can simply walk out the door with your items while RFID-equipped checkout lanes enable your total bill to be automatically deducted from your bank account, your fridge keeps track of everything that’s fresh or expired, your trash and/or recycling bin adds discarded items back to your grocery list for replenishment, and marketing materials like coupons are customized and sent to you based on your preferences.
Before we conjure up scenes from “The Jetsons,” however, Ferguson indicated that the creation of virtual objects using data collected from RFID tags is the next and more immediate progression for this technology. As it applies to the imaging industry, RFID tags are already being used for “data mining,” Hibbard said, “especially for those consumers who subscribe to the HP, Lexmark, etc., consumables internal programs.” In addition to this, Ferguson referred to virtual doubles of print devices that provide information on the real-world equipment, enabling “a software agent (to) respond when it’s out of paper and send a signal to someone to restock it, rather than having someone prowl the halls looking for printers that need paper.”
Other technologies, like the implied network required to support virtual printers, will further boost RFID’s capabilities in the future. Near-field communications (NFC) currently leveraged in the credit card industry is one such technology. Since NFC provides another layer of security, it is gaining popularity, and because it works much the same way as RFID — that is, communication takes place between an NFC chip and an NFC payment terminal as it would between an RFID tag and reader — it’s no surprise that NFC devices were discovered to have the ability to decode passive RFID tags as well, Bonsor, Keener and Wesley said.
In these ways and more, RFID appears to be creating “a world where objects can sense, reason, communicate and act; where for every physical entity or event, there is a virtual cooperating double; where the time between stimulus and response approaches zero and optimization becomes fine-grained,” Ferguson said. Naturally, however, such a “progression” raises some sunstantial moral questions.
As problematic as it is promising
There are many benefits to using RFID — especially considering the shortcomings of bar codes, its main competition at the moment. Unlike bar codes, multiple RFID tags can be read numerous times closely or at a distance by a decoder regardless of whether they’re on the surface of an object or hidden within it, Hibbard indicated — and they can even transmit editable information too, depending on the type of tag. Because of RFID’s potential to house a changing data set, Ferguson sees even greater opportunities “to serve customers and machines and objects in a way that (companies) never have been able to before” through its use. Just the act of “putting reality itself online” through the creation of virtual devices that mirror the real-life ones “opens up huge economic advantages,” the same RFID Journal article indicated.
RFID isn’t without its challenges, though — both technical and ethical. Some general issues arise, for instance, when reading the tags. “One problem that exists is RFID standardization,” Hibbard said. “The frequencies used for RFID in the USA are currently incompatible with those of Europe or Japan. Furthermore, no emerging standard has yet become as universal as the UPC barcode.” However, while standardization would solve this problem, it would at the same time cause another one, because “tags which are world-readable pose a risk to both personal location privacy and corporate/military security,” Hibbard noted.
Outside of standardization, because all RFID tags broadcast over radio frequencies, tag, reader or tag and reader interference can occur. “Metal reflects radio frequencies and liquid absorbs them, making it difficult to read an RFID tag signal on containers with either material,” said Laurie Sullivan in her article, “RFID Implementation Challenges Persist, All This Time Later.” Decoders can also get confused when attempting to read multiple tags at the same time, and sometimes tags don’t seem able to transmit their signals fast enough, she added.
Costs for RFID are also considerably steeper than alternative coding methods, at anywhere between 7 and 20 cents per passive tag, according to the RFID Journal. “The RFID industry’s goal is to get the cost of a passive RFID tag down to five cents each once more merchandisers adopt it,” the Bonsor, Keener and Wesley article indicated. “Active and semipassive tags are more expensive, and RFID manufacturers typically do not quote prices for these tags without first determining their range, storage type and quantity,” they added.
But the biggest challenges with RFID are the security and privacy issues that arise with using them for an ever-increasing number of functions. One of the largest well-known concerns involves the version of American passports updated August 14, 2006, to include RFID technology. Allegedly, “a chip identification number, digital signature and photograph that acts as a biometric identifier … make the passport impossible to forge,” Bonsor, Keener and Wesley said, but RFID also potentially increases the risk of identity theft through skimming (an unauthorized person scanning the RFID chip unbeknownst to a passport holder) or eavesdropping (an unauthorized person picking up the RFID chip’s frequency — and the information transferred therein — as it’s scanned by authorized personnel).
It is known that RFID tags can be hacked. The Bonsor, Keener and Wesley article pointed to the easy disabling of anti-theft functions as well as the ability for hackers to modify prices of products via the tags as two problems that need remediation — like securer encryption, for one. While they indicated that the Department of Homeland Security has installed a “metallic anti-skimming device, … (which is) a radio shield inserted between the passport’s cover and first page” preventing scanning while closed as well as limiting the scannable distance while open to less than 3.9 inches, and has imposed structural guidelines for areas where passports are scanned to prevent eavesdropping, many are still skeptical. And even if identity theft is guarded against adequately, “some critics say that relying on RFID as the primary means of security could make human security checkpoints lazy and ineffective,” the Bonsor, Keener and Wesley article stated.
Human chipping using RFID presents the ultimate in obvious challenges with regard to civil liberties and religious beliefs — especially considering that you never know if someday down the line, it will become mandatory. But even if you won’t be monitored personally, what you spend on can be — without your permission. Consumers may have little choice in the near future as to whether their purchases are tracked via RFID, which is dangerously close to being chipped yourself, since if everything you buy is marked, you easily leave a trail of your whereabouts through your spending. “Personal data being distributed … without your knowledge” is almost a guarantee in this sense, Hibbard noted. Ferguson acknowledged in his talk that regulations for RFID use would have to be established, but he still viewed the potentials the technology presents for our future in an optimistic light. “Privacy and business insight will be bought and sold,” he admitted, “(but our) market will reward those who effectively harness the real-time economy and garner and preserve the trust of their stakeholders.”
While clearly, a lot of imagination has gone into envisioning an infinitely more convenient world through RFID, there are many ramifications that go along with it that must be addressed — particularly to the satisfaction of consumers. It’s good to see so many people raising concerns, though, because such discussions are generally only warranted by highly advanced and truly promising technologies. The hope today is that, as other technologies evolve alongside RFID, finding solutions to these dilemmas will be easier to accomplish so the vision for RFID can be fully realized — and embraced — tomorrow.
This article originally appeared in the June 2012 issue of Recharger.