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Youíve been tagged

By Chris Abood - posted Monday, 16 February 2009


Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID) is set to revolutionise inventory control. It is also set to unleash a whole new way of tracking your purchasing habits and movements. Whatever privacy concerns you have now are nothing compared to what is coming. Currently governments do not have any policy or legislation in place to deal with RFID and privacy. In fact, governments can become the biggest beneficiaries of this new technology.

RFID is a small tag that uses radio technology that can be attached to an item that can be read via a scanner to identify and track that item. A RFID tag can be as small as a grain of sand. Think of an RFID tag as an elaborate bar code, however unlike a bar code, the details can be read from a distance, even from a satellite.

Currently, you fill your trolley with goods, proceed to a checkout, place the items on the counter where a point of sales person (aka “checkout chick”) finds the bar code on the item, scans it, packs it and charges it. With items tagged with an RFID chip, you would simply push your trolley through a scanner, which would immediately tally up your bill and debit your pre-registered credit card. No need to line up, no need for a point of sales person. They would also have a complete profile of your buying habits.

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There are two types of RFID tags: passive and active. A passive RFID tag has no battery but instead derives its power from the reader. These tags are smaller, cheap, and have a long life, however they can only be read from a few feet away. Active tags contain their own power source and can be read from greater distances. They can also contain other sensors such as monitoring the internal temperature of a shipping container for perishable goods. Active tags are generally much larger and more expensive. But like all technology, over time they will become smaller, cheaper, and more powerful.

There are many advantages and applications of RFID besides speeding up the checkout processing. If you are a business that currently has to open a box of goods to count them to ensure you have received the required quantity before placing them into stock, then with RFID tagged goods you will be able to determine the quantity without having to open the box and you will eliminate counting errors. Stocktaking all of a sudden becomes a lot easier and more accurate. Locating items in the warehouse is also a lot easier.

Banks are currently looking at using RFID in banking cards. When you walk into a branch they will be able to determine the type of customer you are. If you are a high value customer walking into a bank branch, you shouldn’t be surprised if a bank employee comes up to you and says “Come this way sir, no need to line up with the general riff-raff”.

A possible future application is the replacement of postage stamps. By placing an RFID tag on your postage item, you could then enter the address via an online portal with the RFID number. The postage item would then be able to be processed a lot faster and you could track its progress towards its final destination.

But tracking an RFID tag is a problem, especially if you do not want to be tracked. Imagine that you have just had a hip replacement that has been fitted with an RFID tag. Your every move can now be monitored. Some medical implants are already currently RFID tagged. While there are worthwhile benefits of implants being RFID enabled - such as enabling a doctor to monitor the status of the implant - it enables others to monitor your movements.

Passports are also set to be RFID enabled. In fact, from my research, the only piece of legislation passed by the Federal Government dealing with RFID was to allow the tags to be placed within passports. Once through customs, your movements can be monitored. Think this sounds far-fetched? Consider that it is now almost impossible to walk down a street in the CBD or walk into a shop without being videoed by the ever-increasing number of installed CCTV units. Will RFID scanners replace CCTV? Probably not, you can monitor via satellite.

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How long before your Medicare card, driver’s licence and other government identification are RFID enabled?

What if these tags are not removed from the item upon purchase? A thief armed with a scanner can drive down your street gaining an inventory of household items, then cherry pick the best houses to hit at a later date.

Imagine taking a pair of jeans into the clothing store’s change rooms to try them on when over the speaker you hear “Why not try the Acme brand of jeans, they last much longer and look much nicer than the brand you are trying on”, when in fact the store gets an extra commission for selling the Acme brand.

The RFID tag we are most familiar with is the electronic tag we place on our windscreens so tolling companies can charge us for use of tollways. Not only do they currently debit your account but record the time and date of entry onto the tollway. Some tollways will even record these details at certain intervals for charging on a distance-travelled basis. But when you record the time and date between two points, you can determine speed.

It will not be too long before Governments start to install RFID readers along roads to measure your speed. Currently, fixed speed cameras determine speed when your car travels over a grid in the road. These are expensive to install and most people just slow down and then speed up once they pass over the grid. Using radar requires a straight line of sight and requires officers to be there. With electronic tag readers they can be place between any two poles at any distance to measure speed. They can easily be moved around and are much cheaper to operate. With the prevalence of electronic tags, the lure of revenue will be too great for governments to ignore.

I see RFID going the way of CCTV. The horse will have well and truly bolted before people realise what has happened. Governments will then only pass token legislation as they have with CCTV, as they are one of the biggest beneficiaries of prying into our lives.

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About the Author

Chris Abood is a member of the Liberal Party of Australia and a member of the Australian Computer Society. Besides having a day job, he teaches ICT part time at TAFE. He is concerned with the effects and use of technology within society. These opinions are his own.

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All articles by Chris Abood

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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