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RFID Technology: Where We Are and Where We Might Be

Recently, on a short hop between Augusta and Atlanta, Georgia, I sat in the aisle seat of a two-seat row on a very small prop plane and decided not to use up the energy it usually takes to overcome privacy considerations. So I did not, as I usually do, introduce myself and engage my fellow passenger in discussion. Boy, was that a mistake.

After we landed in Augusta and could turn on our cell phones, I overheard him on his phone talking to a friend about a meeting at the University of Massachusetts. My ears perked up and I asked him why he was going to UMass. He replied that he was part of a corporate research team that was going there to work collaboratively on identification tagging of those ubiquitous cargo containers that bring all our consumer goods in and through the United States. Let me give you advice counter to what your mother may have said. Never hesitate to speak with a stranger. I really would have liked to talk with him more and feel like I lost a great opportunity.

For one thing, I would have liked an idea of how far along his work was. The vague impression I got from a very short conversation as we filed out of the plane was that it was in early stages of research. I've seen estimates that an RFID tagging system to identify and locate all such cargo containers coming into and out of the US could have cost less than $1B to develop and implement-and could have been done by now.

RFID is fast becoming a fact of life. Many libraries are already using them to control inventory. One company estimates that there will be at least 20 billion RFID tags and labels in commerce by 2008. I would say that estimate is low because it anticipates manufacture and vendor demand only, not consumer demand (see below). "Middleware" to network tags, labels, and readers across manufacturers and hardware and software platforms are a hot topic of research right now. If you remember when the first president Bush committed the faux pas of being publicly surprised by bar codes and scanners, then it tells you something about how fast this area is moving-in the election of 2016, the very youngest voters may not even remember bar codes.

What is an RFID tag? I like this brief explanation from this comprehensive online glossary of terms:

RFID tag: A microchip attached to an antenna that is packaged in a way that it can be applied to an object. The tag picks up signals from and sends signals to a reader. The tag contains a unique serial number, but may have other information, such as a customers' account number. Tags come in many forms, such [as a smart label] that can have a barcode printed on it, or the tag can simply be mounted inside a carton or embedded in plastic. RFID tags can be active, passive, or semi-passive.

We tend to think of them as specifically tracking and identification devices for consumer goods, but of course they will be doing far more than that. Everyone knows that at the pallet level Wal-Mart is requiring its goods vendors to implement RFID tagging almost immediately. That and many other RFID initiatives have protectors of privacy rightfully concerned.

Some of the first concerns were that RFID tags on clothing might not get "turned off" when purchasers leave a store and thus wearers could be tracked by RFID readers. Those concerns were dismissed by some since RFID is built to work at such close range that readers would have to be practically on top of consumers to identity the tag on their boxer shorts. On the other hand, when students can work with a standard WiFi transmitter and creatively using antennae extend its range out to hundreds of miles, that's a panacea that d'esn't work for me.

The biggest problem with RFID privacy is that so many consumers will want their belongings to be tagged. Now, that works on several levels. I'll address one adult, mature level-and then one from the Millennials (or younger) generation.

Power Supplies and Related Cords!

Just think: What if every detachable piece of a power supply or related cord came tagged with an unremovable, invisible, tiny little RFID tag. In a few years I might be able to wave my PDA at the two complete dresser drawers full of tangled black and white cords (like baby snakes in a snake den) and power boxes in my house and immediately identify which one belongs to the scanner that I last used two years ago and would like to use again. (I know I didn't have to get too graphic at describing that pile because you have one or more like it, too.)

In a really mundane sense, RFID tags might actually let you always use as a pair the same two black socks that you bought at one time-despite their being washed in a load with 15 other "identical-to-the-eye" pairs.

Now, to Party Fun!

Now to our current students, and the new ones coming along. They have their own Web sites, love logos on the instant messenger screen, and leave expressive p'etry as "away" messages. They constantly want to make "statements" about themselves, and what better way than to turn back on the RFID tags on all your belongings so that when you walk into an area, everyone there can immediately understand what your preferences are. Don't think this won't happen. It will.

On the other hand, and perhaps this marks me as a geek (an older geek): Can you imagine how cool it would be to walk into that party in, say, 2015, wearing clothes purchased in 2004 and thus being, to the personal area network (PAN) systems of the other party-g'ers, a figure of deep mystery, unidentifiable with regard to your consumer choices. That is, unless by then personal grooming products impart nano-tags that "stick" as you use them and can identify-to anyone whose PAN can perceive the data-as a user of Breck shampoo, Listerine mouthwash, "Gray-No-More," and who knows what else.

I'm sure that you can get creative and think of lots of consumer uses of RFID tags. One that I recently read gave the inner child in me great pleasure. It involved using a PDA to read and alter tags inside a large department store. Another suggestion was to dump a box of cockroaches with read/write RFID tags glued to then loose in the same store-after writing the identity of store products onto the mobile tags. Sometimes I wish I could write fiction-there are some good stories there.

Anyway, lest you think anything you can imagine about RFIDs is too far in the future, remember that earlier this year some top Mexican officials had ID tags implanted in their bodies to assist with security implementation. And just this week the FDA approved the use of RFID tags in medical patients.*

* The article linked above is skeptical of the value of these items and although I disagree with the author, find him to make many cogent points. That article ends:

Unique RF identity chips and concealed RF readers everywhere: Madmen have been complaining about this since the earliest days of radio. That's how we knew they were madmen. Only an IT industry divorced from any sense of good taste and human dignity, in which technology becomes an end in itself, could strive to make the nightmares of the insane a common reality. And yet, here we are.

"Feds Approve Human RFID Implants,"
by Thomas C. Green in The Register

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