Thursday, August 31, 2006

Widespread use of RFID tags is coming.

New technology raises privacy concerns


Gannett News Service
Copyright 2006

WASHINGTON -- Microchips similar to those used to pay highway tolls and enter an office building with a swipe card can also help you assemble an ensemble.

Need a dress shirt to match that new red plaid tie you got for your birthday? BLEEP!

Or how about a 'smart shelf' that catalogues your DVD collection or tells you whether you have the ingredients necessary to make chocolate chip cookies? Or a suitcase that alerts you when you forget to pack your toothbrush?

These are some of the already-possible applications for RFID, radio frequency identification, a technology that is quickly becoming a part of our every day lives.

How it works: Using a microchip as small as grain of rice or about the size of a postage stamp, often with a maze-like antenna configuration, this technology identifies and tracks items.

It's like a barcode, but because it communicates through a radio frequency, it can be scanned faster and from farther away. It also can carry data that can be linked to a database, which can tell you, for example, that you have a blue shirt that would look wonderful with that new tie.

Katherine Albrecht, author of 'Spychips,' said anything that tracks certain items or stores data could be used to compromise security or invade a person's privacy by identifying, without their knowledge, what they are carrying in their purse or have in their living room.

'People could walk around with RFID readers and find out what you paid for your clothing and what is in your bag,' she said. 'That's pretty invasive.'

Already, these tags are used by millions of drivers who pay highway tolls with EZ Pass or Smart Pass; buy gas with Exxon Mobile's Speedpass; pay subway or bus fare with Washington's SmartTrip card; or enter their office building with a keycard.

The technology is used by the Department of Defense to identify airplane and tank parts, Wal-Mart and Procter & Gamble to catalogue pallets and crates of products; and several airports, starting with the McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, to track baggage.

'We're right now at the very, very early stages of the technology,' said Rob Atkinson, founder of the nonprofit, nonpartisan Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. 'As the technology drops in price and as more companies apply it and put it on products, we'll see a lot of new uses.'

Albrecht describes a futuristic world in which RFID tags would be secretly implanted in everything form your new running shoes to the tires on your car. Then readers could be installed in doorways, on highway exit ramps or in public buildings that could instantly read both what you are carrying and where you have been.

Proponents of the technology say any retailer that implants secret RFID tags risks ruining consumer confidence in their product. They also point out that tags must be very close to a reader to be picked up, so it's highly unlikely that a thief could drive past your home with a reader and easily determine whether you have anything valuable.

In the meantime, uses for this technology are multiplying.

Pet owners have RFID tags with contact information imbedded in their animals and humans can now also be implanted with these tags, to store medical data, such as severe allergies.

Amal Graafstra of Bellingham, Wash., gained notoriety for implanting RFID chips in each arm to open his office door, apartment door and turn on his computer.

The travel industry isn't far behind. Great Wolf Lodge in Poconos, Pa., a family resort with an indoor water park, issues guests plastic wristbands with RFID tags that serve as both room key and resort charge card. And, tickets for this year's World Cup in Germany were imbedded with RFID tags to weed out scalpers.

'It's not the cure to cancer, but it's a nice little convenience that makes people's lives a little easier,' Atkinson said.

Tim Heffernan, a policy expert at Symbol Technologies, which makes RFID tags and tag readers, said widespread use of these tags is coming. He says logical places for it to catch on first are at hospitals to monitor patient care and medication, and at airports to track baggage, especially since recent terrorist alerts have increased the number of checked bags.

But concepts like the 'clueless closet' and 'smart shelf' aren't far behind.

To contact Malia Rulon e-mail


Congress, state legislatures taking notice of minichips

WASHINGTON -- As the uses of RFID have increased, so has the attention it's getting from both federal and state lawmakers.

Cincinnati-based, a video surveillance company, was the subject of national news in February when it asked employees to have chips implanted in their arms to gain access to the company's data center instead of using a traditional key card.

The company's president, Sean Darks, and another employee were implanted, but the furor over the concept prompted an Ohio state Sen. Bob Schuler, R-Cincinnati, to introduce a bill to ban involuntary implantation of microchips into employees by private companies or the government.

A similar bill was just signed into law in Wisconsin earlier this year.

Meanwhile, a bill in California would ban the use of RFID chips in driver's licenses and school ID cards.

At the same time, however, the State Department just this month started embedding RFID chips in all new U.S. passports that contain the person's name, sex, date of birth, nationality, photograph and other information, such as blood type and medical history.

Bills pending in several states would require any product with an RFID tag to be labeled so consumers could decide whether to remove the tag or not.

In Washington, Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., launched an RFID Caucus in July to promote the technology, and a bill pending in Congress would require RFID tags to be placed on all bottles of prescription medications to prevent counterfeit drugs from being sold to consumers.

What is RFID?

Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) is a system that wirelessly transmits the identity of a person or product -- using a unique serial number -- through electromagnetic waves.

Components: A transponder (usually a microchip and antenna combined on one chip) is attached to a label or imbedded in a device, product, human or pet. A reader is then used to scan the chip, and a database is used to read the information.

Kinds of chips: An 'active' tag is battery powered and broadcasts a signal that can be read up to 1,500 feet away. A 'passive' tag is not self-powered and can only be activated by a reader, usually within inches or up to 15 feet away.

Common Uses: Tracking products through the distribution system; gaining entry to a car or office building; cataloguing books or videos at a library; tracking baggage; wireless payment at gas stations or on toll roads; identification at resorts, amusement parks or athletic competitions; livestock management; interactive toys.

History: The technology dates to World War II when it was first used to identify friendly aircraft. Over the years, it's mostly been used to track products.

On the Web:, Information Technology and Innovation Foundation., Site by Katherine Albrecht, author of 'Spychips', RFID Journal., Information Technology Industry Council.

© 2006 Gannett News Service: