Radio Frequency Identification, or RFID, is a technology slowly being incorporated more and more into daily life. The uses for RFID are endless as the technology becomes smaller, cheaper and more versatile. If you don’t know what RFID is, you'll soon find out!
RFID is a wireless identification system that can be viewed like a phone conversation. For a phone conversation to work, we need two telephones, one phone is used to dial and the other one receives the call. Imagine this is a phone call between an automated dialing system and you. In an RFID system, the phone dialing is a called a “reader” and the phone receiving is called a “tag.” The reader acts much like an automated dialer, where it can call any number of phones at once. Instead of the tag saying “hello,” as you would, it will respond with a list of numbers. The numbers are the identification of that tag, and only that tag. Now much like you will hang up once you hear its an automated system asking you for money, the reader ends the conversation with the tag.
In recent years, many commercial applications of RFID have been released. For example, Mobil Speedpass uses RFID. Have you ever rented a ZipCar? The key used to unlock the car uses RFID. It is becoming standard for cars today to allow you to lock, unlock and start the car without inserting the key.
RFID systems have become a common replacement for keys around the workplace. The conventional lock on a door can be replaced by an RFID system. A tag is used to authenticate the person and unlock the door. A tag does not require any power, so there are no batteries, and can be smaller than a dime. It is commonly used inside a credit card-sized piece of plastic. The size of a reader can vary from a handheld device to the size of a doorknob.
The beauty of using an RFID system as a key is access management and access history. The readers can be programmed to only allow certain tags, or people, into certain rooms. If an employee quits the company, his tag number can simply be removed from the system. There is never worry about losing keys or wondering who has what key. With a tag costing only cents, it is very easy to add or remove access to a room. The readers also record each person who entered the room and at what time. This is useful if there is a security breach of any kind.
Some RFID tags are designed to be implanted under the skin. It is very common in Europe and the USA for pets that are adopted to have a tag, called a microchip in this context, implanted in them. The microchip is smaller than a grain of rice and can be implanted into a pet the same way a vaccine is. When scanned, the identification of the pet can be looked up in a database. The idea is that any pet can be traced back to its rightful owner if it is lost or stolen. You can read more about pets and microchips here.
Other people have had tags implanted under their own skin. Generally the location of the implant is in between the thumb and index finger. Implants in humans are not widely used. There is speculation regarding RFID causing cancer in the tissue surrounding the implant. If you really don't want to carry around money or identification, there is a club in Barcelona which will scan you instead. With some modification, you can even start and unlock your car with the same implant.
The future of RFID holds many great possibilities. One of these possibilities is the much needed modernization of bar codes. A bar code must be scanned individually and put directly in front of the scanner. When going to the grocery store, every item must be scanned one by one. With RFID, the food could be scanned without even having to leave the basket. Not only that, all the items could be scanned simultaneously.
There is also a lot of interest in putting tags into paper products, i.e. passports and checks. If you are interested in a detailed breakdown of this new technology here is a Citizendium article I wrote for a writing class of mine.
For more information:
- RSA Laboratories
- Though very technical, securerf is a well-written blog regarding security and privacy.
- VeriChip, now named PositiveID, designed the human implantable chip
Want to start playing around with RFID on your own? Simple RFID access system