RFID on a solid track

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RFID, radio-frequency identification, is much of the science fiction lore as the flying cars – except for one thing. RFID is here, and it works.

One of the safest ways to kill any technology, or a product is to create hype around it. A hype that makes people turn against it at the slightest of setbacks.

That’s where RFID is now.

And the overhyping disappoints Pete Lowe, a consultant in the RFID industry, and a former HID executive.

“In evaluating whether RFID is a success or not, I think it’s very important to remember that it’s a technology, not a business. In that sense, you can say that RFID is a good thing. The technology works in many applications very well,” he says.

“RFID has been overhyped to a point that it’s now, in some circles, regarded as very disappointing. It’s not because the technology is a failure but because the expectations were completely misaligned with what it can do,” he adds.

Like many of the tracking devices, RFID’s history can be traced back to a military use. In 1946, Léon Theremin invented a tool for the Soviet Union and while his espionage device was a passive listening device, not an identification tag, it has been attributed as a predecessor to RFID technology. The first US patent for RFID was given in 1983.

“RFID has been around since the mid-1980s but it’s only been the last few years that the hype has got excessive. One of the things driving it is EPC, the electronic product code, which is used for tagging of retail items – which has not been a success,” says Lowe.

RFIDTo be able to use RFID in such applications, the price of the RFID tag has to be brought down, close to about five US cents, says Lowe. To do that, it’s best to use UHF, a very high frequency, to communicate between the tag and the interrogator.

“Although UHF gives the possibility of a very low cost tag - not five cents, but probably 20 cents – it has very long range, one or two meters, and it has the possibility of reading a large number of tags in the same field. For example, if you had a bag full of laundry, with a tag in each item, you could read all the tags very quickly,” says Lowe.

“However, the problem with the UHF is something called multipath where the signal bounces off things and then the bounced signal and direct one arrive at the reader at the same time, resulting in an interference and no signal,” he says.

The UHF is the same frequency as what a regular our microwave oven uses. In the oven, the radio frequency’s energy is absorbed by the food, water and fat, and the food gets hot. The same thing happens with retail articles: if they contain water, the waves will not go through but will be absorbed. Unfortunately, many retails items have that.

“I can hold a UHF tag in my fist, and it can’t be read.  No RFID will read through metal, either,” says Lowe.

However, RFID is also a great success in some other, just as important areas, like access control. The technology is RFID, but it’s so commonplace that people don’t even think about it anymore.

RFID“There’s no question that it works. The expectations are not high; the cards work first time all the time. You don’t need to read more than a few centimeters. Even bigger than access control is transportation, and paying for fares in trains and buses,” Lowe says, and gives an example from the lighter side, from Seoul, South Korea.

“In Seoul, they used to pay the fare in cash to the bus driver. When they installed the RFID readers and tickets, the bus drivers went on strike because they were skimming about 15 percent of the fare. They admitted to it, and finally got a 15 percent pay raise and everyone was happy,” he says, chuckling.

While people in general look forward to new technological advances, their faith in them is only exceeded by their fear of them. With RFID, the fear is almost always the same: lack of privacy.

“An RFID card that gets you into a building is only as good as the people who carry them. If you know a crook, you can give it to him. Combine it with biometrics and it’s more difficult,” Lowe says.

One of the myths surrounding the RFID-based ID cards is that they are easy to snoop, that is, someone could just swipe the information off your card, walking past you on the street.

“It’s possible, but it needs to be similar to the technology that NASA uses to track signals from Mars, it would require a huge signal-to-noise ratio and a very powerful computer. It has been demonstrated in a controlled setting but it’s not going to happen on the streets of Stockholm,” says Lowe, and then states his vision.

“An ideal use of RFID but one that we will have to wait for until the privacy concerns are allayed and the various participants can agree upon a secure partitioning scheme, is a Multi-Application Contactless Smartcard. This card would have our national ID card, our driver’s license, credit card, medical card, business and network access credential as well as our bus pass and coffee machine cards all rolled into one standard sized card in our wallet,” he concludes.