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World Of Radio
Frequency Identification

By John Jerney
Daily Yomiuri Online
Imagine the following scenario: most every item, no matter the size, contains a small almost invisible tag--even items such as clothing, currency, and postal mail. When you pick up the item at a store, a video camera zooms in and records your actions.
When you browse a book, a computer records how long you are holding the book. And when you walk past a friend, a police surveillance system records the encounter.
What makes all this possible is a technology called Radio Frequency Identification (RFID).
RFID systems consist of a small tag typically containing a microprocessor, a small amount of memory, and an antenna. The memory can be volatile or static depending on the type of application the RFID device is designed to enable.
Volatile memory allows the information in the RFID tag to be changed and updated, while static memory basically stores read-only information such as a serial number or other identification code.
An RFID device uses radio waves to communicate with an external reader, which in turn is connected to a computer system that enables the transmitted information to be processed.
The RFID device itself can be either active or passive. An active device has its own power source, most commonly a battery, which it uses to communicate with the reader.
Passive RFID devices, on the other hand, do not require a battery. Instead, they convert the magnetic field created by an external reader into electricity to generate the radio signals.
RFID belongs to a class of technologies more generally known as automatic identification systems. Automatic id systems enable machines to identify objects without human intervention.
The most common automatic identification system currently used relies on bar codes. Bar codes work well, but also have several limitations. First, bar codes typically encode only small amounts of data, ranging from several characters and digits to a couple of kilobytes in the most expanded versions.
RFID devices, on the other hand, are limited only by the amount of memory embedded in the tag. Information stored on bar codes is also inherently static. Volatile memory further enable the system to be used in more dynamic environments.
Most importantly, bar codes require a scanner to see the code in order to read it. This means that the bar code must not only be free from obstructions, such as dirt or stickers, but must also be aligned in the general direction of the scanner.
RFID devices do not have these restrictions. The tag can be aligned in any manner, and moving at practically any speed, as long as the tag somehow passes through the area covered by the reader.
RFID devices are not perfect for all applications, however. Since metal shields radio signals, RFID cannot be embedded inside metal containers.
Another issue is compatibility. Universally accepted RFID standards have yet to appear. Devices from different manufacturers might not even use the same frequency over which to communicate. This means that currently most deployments have been occurring within a single organization or a group of closely-knit companies.
Cost too remains a factor. Bar codes are simple printouts costing less than a penny each. Even with mass production, the most basic RFID devices still cost dozens of times more. Sophisticated RFID devices with greater range, more memory, and faster processing can cost tens of dollars or more.
Still, the idea of identifying specifically tagged items (uniquely across the entire world) has appeal to companies, industries, and even governments.
The largest retailer in the world Wal-Mart, for example, is taking the lead in requiring its top suppliers to employ RFID devices in all shipping containers.
The beef industry too has begun using RFID technology to control its product from livestock to processing stages. And the nation of China is preparing several plans to widely deploy RFID systems in applications ranging from a newly planned national identification card to tracking vital medical supplies throughout the country.
Software vendors too are engineering their newest offerings to function within RFID environments. Oracle, Microsoft, SAP, and others are all including RFID-specific features in their newest upgrades to help manage the ocean of data that billions, and potentially even trillions, of these devices are likely to produce over the next few years.
This has led a number of privacy and consumer advocate organizations to sound an alarm. The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse (www.privacyrights.org), Electronic Frontier Foundation (www.eff.org), and similar minded organizations have joined together to issue a position statement concerning acceptable and unacceptable uses for RFID devices.
In particular, the groups note that acceptable uses include tracking pharmaceuticals from manufacture to the point of dispensing, tracing manufactured goods from creation to in-store delivery, and detecting items containing toxic substances, such as personal computers and televisions, from entering land-fills.
Threats to privacy include RFID tags that are hidden and embedded into objects without prior knowledge or consent of consumers. Since readers can be hidden and linked to related technologies, such as video surveillance and information sifting and data mining, the potential for abuse is very real.
Likewise, privacy advocates are weary about the linking of personal identity with unique object identifiers, enabling individuals to be tracked and profiled through the objects they use without their awareness or approval.
Governments and organizations could use the technology to monitor the activity of activists and protesters. In fact, the European Union and Japanese government have both considered using RFID technology in currency, and other governments are examining its use in law enforcement.
Think the idea of walking around carrying an RFID tag on your body everywhere you go sounds too much like Big Brother? Well don't worry, you're already tagged to some degree. In this case, the RFID device is called your mobile phone.
Copyright 2004 The Yomiuri Shimbun http://www.yomiuri.co.jp/newse/20040427wo63.htm



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