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RFID Tags: Pervasive Computing in Your Pocket, on Your Key Chain and in Your Car

By definition, something that is truly pervasive becomes almost invisible to the end user. That pervasive "something" becomes so widely adopted, so ubiquitous within its environment that it is readily taken for granted and given very little thought. Electricity is an excellent example of a pervasive technology. If you need a light, just flip on the light switch. If you need to plug in your laptop, just look around the room, there will undoubtedly be a few electrical outlets to choose from. Recently, I realized to my surprise, that Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags, a category of pervasive computing technologies, have managed to become quite pervasive right under my very nose.

While given my area of expertise, I’ll admit that not realizing the depth of how pervasive the adoption of RFID tags has become is a lapse of observation and study on my part. However, this example also highlights the beauty and promise of pervasive computing. If it’s done right, you don’t even know its there.

RFID tags are transponders, devices that upon receiving a radio signal transmit one of their own. Transponder technology was first developed during World War II as a means of identifying friendly aircraft. While their main function remains identification, they can also be used for detecting and locating objects as well as monitoring an object’s condition and environment.

RFID Tags are All Around You

If you’re currently at work, chances are you are carrying at least one RFID tag on you right now. Your employee badge that you wave in front of a card reader to gain entry into your office is an example of a passive RFID tag. Passive RFID tags do not contain their own power source but rely on the inductive coupling of the low frequency broadcasts by the card reader to power them.

Beyond your corporation, you encounter an RFID tag every time you shop at a retailer and they remove or deactivate (yes, some RFID tags are read/write) the anti-theft device attached to the item you’re purchasing. Another commercial application of RFID tags that is gaining popularity is ExxonMobil’s SpeedPass. Instead of paying for your gas with cash or credit card, you wave a tiny inch long cylinder that attaches to your key chain in front of the pump and your purchase is automatically charged to your Mobil account.

If you live near a toll way, you also probably have observed or participated in an active RFID tag system as I have with Chicago’s tollway and its I-PASS system. The I-PASS system uses an active tag or a tag with a battery as a power source to boost its signal allowing it to be read from a greater distance and faster speed than a passive tag could.

Advantages and Disadvantages

All of these examples are illustrations of RFID tags used for identification purposes. RFID tags may very well become the bar codes of the future. For RFID tags have one key advantage over UPC codes, they do not require a line of site to be read, and they can easily be read through lighter materials such as clothing or cardboard boxes. Multiple tags can also be scanned simultaneously. Instead of unloading your shopping cart full of groceries to have them scanned and then bagged. How about bagging your groceries as you pick them up off the supermarket shelves and then as you leave the store have your entire cart instantly scanned without ever needing to unpack and repack a single item? While this scenario may not be available yet, it is currently under development.

RFID tags also can store significant more information than a UPC code. The average passive tag can store 256 bits of information while active tags often contain an embedded microcontroller and have up to 32K of flash memory within the tag itself. This amount of memory and the added functionality of the microcontroller can extend the ability of the tag beyond mere identification purposes. For example, active RFID tags are being used as part of the US Custom Service’s Container Security Initiative. Active RFID tags, designed to prevent tampering with the container’s contents, monitor electronic seals on the container and can relay information regarding that container’s integrity in real time. Beyond tamper detection, these tags can be interfaced with other sensors that detect motion, shock and the temperature of the object.

Unfortunately, RFID tags have one significant disadvantage versus UPC codes, and that is cost. A UPC code costs less than a penny to print on each item. In comparison, passive RFID tags can cost around 50 cents to produce and active tags are even more expensive price at around $4 each.

Promise and Potential

In Ralph Kimball’s book, The Data Webhouse Toolkit, he highlights the potential of clickstream analysis by drawing a comparison between the relatively limited information that brick-and-mortar retail stores, such as supermarket’s with their "supersaver" cards, can capture versus the tremendous potential of clickstream analysis to track a user’s shopping habits in a virtual online store. "In a Web-based retail setting we have an opportunity to follow the customer through his entire shopping trip – to identify the customer…and follow him through his total shopping experience. We can measure what he looks at, how long he looks, what he selects and what he rejects. Even more remarkably, we can dynamically modify the store as he walks through it online", writes Kimball. RFID tags offer this same potential for the physical world and even more.

Embed an RFID tag in your supersaver card, and the grocery chain would be able to track when you enter a store, what aisles you walk down and what items you put in your cart. Having a cart filled with a specific item could instantly trigger an advertising display sign to change (as foretold in the movie, the Minority Report).

Beyond the CRM potential of RFID tags, the real-time insight into the entire supply chain is tremendous. Back in the retail store, if every product had an RFID tag, what if every shelf the products were on was a smart shelf equipped with a RFID reader? As shelves begin to empty, this real-time information could be relayed back to inventory control where someone would be dispatched to restock that particular shelf. This may seem farfetched at the moment, but Wal-Mart and the U.K.-based supermarket chain Tesco are currently experimenting with smart shelves in conjunction with Gillette and Proctor and Gamble.

With the depleted smart shelf needing restocking, confirmation of the current inventory of the specific item is also available in real time as readers within the warehouse continually monitor its current inventory. If an item gets misplaced, it now can be easily found via a locater service that tracks the items RFID signal to its source. Beyond the retailer’s warehouse, this real- time visibility could be extended into the entire supply chain allowing an unprecedented view into current production and logistic capabilities and status.

Big Brother is Watching You

While the promise of RFID tags is indeed tremendous so are the associated privacy and security concerns. The targeted advertising of the virtual billboards in the movie the Minority Report could be a dream to some marketers but may also be seen as a nightmare to some individuals. Clothing maker Benetton recently hit a snag with its plan to use RFIDs tags in many of its garments. Privacy concerns were raised over the potential misuse of the information carried in each RFID tag and its association with the customer that purchased it. Unlike UPC codes, RFID tags don’t just identify a unique product; they identify each unique instance of an item. Purchase a sweater with an RFID tag embedded in it, and there is a remote but theoretical possibility that your movements could be tracked while you’re wearing it. Currently commercial RFID passive readers have limited range of only a few feet, but readers with a greater sensitivity are indeed possible.

Privacy concerns have also been raised with the highway toll collection systems using the active RFID tags. While tolls can now be more easily collected, so can information on an individual’s driving habits. The time between tollbooths can be computed and potentially automatic traffic tickets issued if you end up driving to the next tollbooth in a shorter amount of time than the speed limit allows. Some states have had their toll systems records subpoenaed in court cases in order to prove whether or not an individual was at a certain place at a certain point in time.

To combat these privacy concerns, most companies using RFID tags encrypt their tags. Also, many RFID readers can function in read/write mode, enabling tags to be erased as they leave the store. Nonetheless, just as the promise and potential for RFID tags are still being investigated, so are the privacy and security concerns still being identified and solutions formulated. With many new ideas, the current pace of innovation far outstrips the innovating corporation’s (and really our entire society’s) ability to deal with the associated security and privacy concerns.

RFID tags offer tremendous potential for consumers, some of which is being realized already. They also offer corporations complete and potentially real-time visibility into their entire supply chain, but they carry with them profound privacy and security issues that need to be addressed.

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