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RFID: The issues and the rumors

It is difficult to read a newspaper, watch the TV or listen to a conversation without RFID being mentioned. But not everything you see or hear about RFID is based in fact and the are many misconceptions out there.

 

What is RFID?

Radio Frequency IDentification is a technology that is in many ways very similar to barcode technology that we have used for the last thirty years. The technology uses radio waves instead of light waves to transmit a number to the reader. Like with barcodes the number is the key to a look-up in a database.

 

RFID technology is available in many different variations but they can be easily divided into two types:

1. Active tags, like the one you may have on your car windshield for toll collection on the roadway system. This tag has a range of up to 100m, though typically it is operated in the range of 5 – 20m.

2. Passive tags, small, thin, and often look like a label have been around for a long time. You might have first come across them in an ID badge at work or at the parking lot. They are available in several frequencies that have ranges from a few millimeters to about 5 metres.

RFID is readily available today and is being used in many applications to save money and improve efficiency. But RFID is not good for everything and there are many questions that show that RFID is not well understood.

So let's try to answer some of the questions that are being asked:

 

Who uses RFID today?

There are many applications for RFID but technology is only just beginning to be adopted in large projects. Roadway toll systems are an example of large scale use. Every day we hear about Wal-Mart or Macy's using RFID to track their merchandise. Typically this is done with a "hang tag" that can be removed by the consumer. Payment cards like MasterCard’s PayPass use RFID to make the financial transaction process much faster.

 

Can the government track me with RFID?

RFID tags contain a number (just like a bar code), so if the government knows the number of the tag, then it can track the tag. However, every tag contains a different number, so it would be necessary for the person tracking you to know the numbers of the items that have been assigned to you to be able to track you, and then only if they own readers (of the correct type) at every location they want to track. You are much more likely to be tracked using your credit card or one of the many store loyalty cards that you own.

 

Can RFID tags be read from a satellite?

NO. As I mentioned above, RFID tags have a very limited range and they cannot be read from a satellite or from two miles away or any of the other long distance suggestions you may have heard.

 

Is RFID the mark of the beast?

NO. Although many people have suggested that RFID is the mark of the beast and that this is the first step towards the end of humanity, we have been carrying RFID enabled technology for many years and nothing has happened so far. There is an excellent analysis at http://goo.gl/Z6eMH and we suggest you read this.

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Is there RFID in money?

NO. You have probably seen the YouTube video of someone putting money in a microwave and it bursting into flames! They cite this as proof that there are tags in the money. RFID tags include an integrated circuit (chip), a small piece of silicon. Although this is small it has thickness and dimensions. A typical chip is approx. 0.5mm square and has a thickness of about 0.07mm.This is easily seen and felt in a tag and would be even more apparent in paper money. The bills burst into flames in the microwave oven because of the ink technology that is used in printing the money. The inks are heavily metallic based as part of the security. We all know what happens when metallic objects are put in the microwave.

 

Do I have an RFID tag implanted in me?

NO. Rumors that have suggested that REAL ID and the new healthcare plan in the USA will require implantation of an RFID chip are completely in error. Many of the articles you see on the web today referring to these are dated 2008, long before there were any facts available. For a discussion on this visit http://www.understandrfid.com/529/why-the-healthcare-bill-does-not-require-rfid-and-rfid-is-not-the-mark-of-the-beast/

 

Is it possible to make chip card or RFID card which will be a secured alternative for currency?

 MAYBE.  A lot depends on what you mean by this.  Today we already have RFID enabled credit cards that work exactly as if they were money.  Near Field Communications (NFC) is becoming more popular and is now being enabled in mobile phones.  This can act as currency and is very secure.

 

Is it true that the average person has about 3 to 5 RFID chips in the clothing/shoes they own?

 NO.  Although companies like Macys and J.C. Penney are using RFID tags in their stores to make the logistics of store management much easier, these tags are all “hang tags”. This is a tag that hangs on the clothing article, like a price tag.  The purchaser removes these before they wear the clothing, so no one is walking around today with multiple RFID tags in their clothes.

 

Can RFID cards cancel each other out?

 YES and NO.  RFID card cannot reset each other or destroy each other just by putting them close to each other.  RFID tags are used in gaming (poker chips) and document management where they are very close to each other.  However, the proximity of the tags to each other can be a problem.  In gaming and document management, the systems are intentionally setup so that close coupled tags can be read.  Most tags cannot be read when they are close to another tag.  This means that providing you take your card out of your wallet to read it, there will be no problem.

 

I hear that RFID is not secure – is this a problem?

NO (or maybe YES).  Generic RFID was never designed to be secure.  If all you are doing is trying to attach a unique number to an object there is very little need for security.  Who cares if this is object 12345 or object 54321? If RFID is to be used in the payment industry (NFC) then YES security is important and the chip manufacturers have built security into those chips/tags. Unfortunately it is important that the company deploying the technology understands the security implication and implements it correctly.  This is the issue we have seen with some early payment cards, where the security was not enabled correctly.

 

You may have seen postings that the “MythBusters” (a U.S. based TV program) were going to show that the security didn’t work, but that they were prevented from doing the TV program.  Well Adam didn’t get his story straight, and subsequently backed down from his statements (read the details here).

 

There are needs for a very secure RFID tag and currently ISO is working on methods that will allow for security to be implemented in tags at varying levels depending on the need. Watch for ISO/IEC 29167 to be released in the coming months. Check http://www.understandRFIDstandards for more details as they become available.

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