With the recent boom in RFID implementations by organizations all over the globe, there is a buzz in the on-line communities and social networking sites about how the technology is an attempt to invade the privacy of every “Jane and Joe” on the planet. I have to admit when I first started to come across these public concerns I just assumed this was the vocal minority being overly paranoid. However, as the technology has progressed into many different areas of our life it has become pretty clear that little has been done to address the concerns of the public. So, I am going to address a few of those concerns here.
Recently, the GM plant in Tonawanda, NY incorporated RFID into their engine production process. They simply attach a Balluff Databolt (a specialized bolt with an RFID tag embedded in it) to every engine before it goes onto the assembly line. As with many manufacturing processes the engine will go to many different stations to be assembled and tested. At each of these stations data from the previous station is read and new data is written to the tag to ensure everything in the process went as planned. When the engine is completed the information written on the tag is uploaded to GM’s database and stored. In addition, the tag is removed, its memory erased and placed on another engine that goes through the same process. The tag DOES NOT stay with the engine. And, even if it did there would be no way to secretly track your vehicle by “pinging” this tag.
The GM example is just one of tens of thousands of applications where RFID is used to ensure quality, manage the production process, and manage product recalls in the manufacturing world. So, what about other applications like in retail where clothing is tracked via RFID or the livestock or pet industry where a small RFID tag is implanted in the animal?
So, let’s assume you paid to have your dog “chipped”. If Fido goes missing can you just log on to a custom website and locate Fido two streets away by pinging his chip? No, you cannot. The chips implanted in animals are usually Low Frequency (LF) chips and require a LF RFID reader to be within millimeters of the tag to actually read the memory. The purpose of the RFID tag is to identify the animal after it has been found.
RFID has many uses in retail stores as well. Clothing is tagged to automatically update the inventory, prevent theft, identify who the supplier is etc. The sirens and alarms you hear every time you are in the store are actually triggered by RFID. The tag is placed on the clothing and in the checkout process the tag is turned off…it is supposed to be turned off. If the tag is not turned off by the clerk or you forget to go through the checkout process and attempt to walk out the door the RFID readers at the door recognize the tag and trigger the alarm. So, if the clerk forgets to turn off the tag are you capable of being tracked if you’re wearing that new sweater you just purchased? No. That is unless someone is within a couple of meters of you and they have access to a Ultra-High Frequency (UHF) reader which is also programmed specifically to read the tag that is on your sweater…not likely.
Ultimately, RFID technology is not designed to pin point your location. The technology most associated with locating people is active GPS which is much more expensive and sophisticated. Even with GPS locating you must be carrying a device which can be tracked and you must have given permission to track your device… like a cell phone in some cases.