RFID tags are almost literally everywhere. There are more RFID uses than you can shake the proverbial stick at. But there are also challenges that come with their use.
We all need to know the potential for identity theft that comes with some uses. This article discusses both the benefits and the caveats of RFID.
In this article, we'll show you what RFID tags are and how they work. We'll talk about their history, and then their uses.
We'll also let you know how RFID technology can be exploited, and how you can protect yourself from identity thieves who want to get your personal information.
What Is RFID?
RFID stands for Radio Frequency Identification. RFID comes in many forms and has many applications.
The earliest form of RFID came during World War II. Radar operators wanted to tell the difference between friendly aircraft and enemies. Friendly aircraft were told to perform certain maneuvers that would change their Radar 'signature.'
During World War II, a secret British project placed transmitters on aircraft. When a Radar beam painted an aircraft, the plane's transponder sent back a signal that identified the aircraft as friendly.
This system came to be known as 'Identification Friend or Foe,' which was initialized as 'IFF.' IFF transponders are still in use by both military and civilian aircraft today.
The government granted two patents for RFID devices in the same year: 1973. The government issued the first patent to Mario W. Cardullo for an active RFID tag with a rewritable memory.
The second was to a California entrepreneur named Charles Walton, who received a patent for a passive RFID tag that was used to unlock a door.
In the 1970s, the US government designed an active RFID device used to keep track of nuclear materials and devices. It worked by having an antenna at the entrances of certain secure facilities that could read an RFID tag attached to the device.
Commercially Developed Products
IBM patented an Ultra-high Frequency (UHF) active RFID system that could be read over longer ranges (up to 20 feet in good conditions).
IBM licensed the technology to the bar code company Intermec, who used it in several warehousing and manufacturing applications.
However, the amount of data each tag contained increased the cost per tag, since the tags were used to keep extensive product and location data.
A New Approach
In 1999, a pair of engineers named David Brock and Sanjay Sarma came up with an alternative idea. Instead of having the RFID tag contain all the product information use the tag to store a serial number.
This allowed a data base to maintain all the product information previously stored on the tag, The resulting reduced cost made the technology much more generally available.
In 2003, several standards bodies codified an overall standard, the Electronic Product Code (EPC), opening the way for RFID to be both highly useful and cost-effective.
Several large retailers have implemented or are implementing the EPC standard, including Target, Albertsons and Wal-Mart. The US Department of Defense is also planning to use the EPC standard in equipment tracking.
How Does RFID Work?
Again, there are two basic types of RFID systems: active and passive. We'll discuss each one along with their uses and limitations.
Passive RFID tags have three components: an Integrated circuit (IC) chip which contains the serial number of the tag; the substrate which holds it, and the antenna that both connects it to the reader and transmits power to the chip when it's near a chip reader.
Because passive RFID tags have no power source of their own, the reader's radio frequency signal powers the chip, allowing it to send out a reply with its ID number. Because the transponder provides the power, it limits the range to only one or two feet.
Active RFID tags have their own power source, most often from a small, long-lasting battery. They work similarly to the IFF system we discussed earlier.
Since they send out their own signal when queried, they can be used at much longer distances than passive RFID tags.
What RFID Uses Are There?
Most of us use RFID technology daily, whether or not we're aware of it. Let's discuss twelve of the uses of RFID tags and whether active or passive RFID technology is used for each.
We'll also mention some caveats, if any, associated with each type of usage.
Automated Toll Takers
If you live in a state that uses automated toll takers for bridge or highway tolls, you're using active RFID technology.
That toll tag you place in the window of your automobile is actually a powered RFID device. It contains a serial number that is tied to one or more license plate numbers.
When you pass under the RFID transponder at toll stations, the transponder sends a query to your toll tag. The toll tag responds by transmitting the tag's ID number back to the transponder.
But beware: there have been situations where toll data has been used in court cases.
In some states, like California, the serial number of your RFID tag is deleted once the system charges you; however other states don't do this and your transponder is actually a very effective tracking device.
If this kind of invasion of privacy concerns you, check your state's policy on automated toll taking.
Supply Chain Tracking
As we mentioned before, a major use of RFID technology is in manufacturing and distribution. Manufacturers can attach RFID tags to parts at their origin and can then track them throughout their life cycle.
When you go into Wal-Mart, know that all the stock in the store has been tracked using RFID technology from the manufacturer through the distribution center and finally to the store.
RFID Uses in Hospitals
Many modern hospitals use RFID tags to control inventory, and particularly in drug distribution and patient drug delivery.
When a doctor orders a particular drug to be administered to a patient, the nurse delivering the drug carries a portable RF reader with him or her. The RF reader picks the appropriate drug in the dosage required and delivers it to the nurse.
Once the drug has been given to the patient, the system records that the activity has occurred and tracks any bio-hazard disposables.
RFID Uses in Ranching
Today's ranchers use RFID tags attached most often to the animals' ears.
This allows ranchers to assign each animal a serial number that they can use to keep records of the animal's health, vaccinations received and any medical treatment given to the animal.
This ensures a healthier herd and provides purchasers with a complete record of each animal's care and treatment.
RFID in Cell Phones
Have you ever wondered how that GPS system on your cell phone knows where you are? How do navigation systems like Waze and Google Maps know when you should make the next turn?
The answer lies in a type of RFID technology that makes use of Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites. The GPS system is actually a passive RFID system that triangulates based on radio signals from multiple GPS satellites.
Your phone's GPS system calculates your position based on the arrival time of the signals from at least four GPS satellites. The more satellites in range of your phone, the more accurate the measurement will be.
Realize that your phone is also capturing your location data, which can show a track of where you've been. If you're concerned that this invades your privacy, turn off the GPS location system in your phone unless you need to use it for navigation.
RFID in Cell Phones, Part II
Another use of RFID technology in cell phones is Near Field Communications (NFC). NFC allows you to transfer data to a compatible phone using an active RFID device.
You can pass ID information, play lists or other data directly without having to go through the cellular system and use data.
RFID Document Tracking
Some lawyer's offices and courts are using RFID tags to track legal documents throughout the court system. Using RFID allows for better control and documentation of who has accessed which document and for how long they had it.
It also ensures that both defence and prosecution lawyers have received all the documents to which it entitles them during discovery.
RFID Pet Identification
Have you had a microchip put under the skin of your dog Rover or your cat Fluffy? If so, that chip is actually a passive RFID tag.
If your pet escapes and is found by someone who has access to an RFID reader, your pet will quickly be identified as belonging to you.
RFID in Race Timing
Many marathons and other races now use RFID technology to track participants and accurately determine their race time.
Race monitors embed RFID tags in the number placards that race participants wear. By scanning each participant as they pass checkpoints, many disputes can be avoided and fraud can be prevented.
RFID in Passports
All US Passports issued since 2007 contain a passive RFID chip in them. The chip contains the contact information found on the first page of your Passport along with your picture.
RFID in Libraries
Many modern libraries now embed a passive RFID chip in their books and other checkable items. This allows the book's RFID serial number to be tied to your library card number.
It also contains an electronic switch that programs the book's RFID chip, telling the security system that your book has been properly checked out.
RFID in Credit Cards
Most credit cards issued today have at least one chip in them, but some have two. The first chip is called an EMV chip. This chip is used to encrypt a credit card transaction. It is the visible chip on one end of your credit card.
The second chip is a passive RFID chip. That chip is used for rapid pay, where you wave your card over a reader rather than enter the card into a chip reader or swipe the magnetic strip.
You may have heard that people with a credit card reader can get your credit card information if they walk near you. This is true only if you have a card that has the instant pay feature.
Card readers can't access credit card information from an EMV chip. If you don't have a card with an RFID chip, you shouldn't worry.
If you do, however, you might consider getting a credit card holder or wallet that blocks the RFID reader from accessing your credit card information.
RFID Uses - Conclusion
We've explored RFID uses in many industries and personal applications.
Now that you've seen that RFID uses are impacting your daily life in ways you never realized, you should have a better appreciation for how this technology makes processes more efficient and reduces costs to you.
Featured Image via Pixabay