RFIDs: The Pros and Cons Every Consumer Needs to Know About Radio Frequency Identification Tags
Radio Frequency Identification Tags (RFIDs) are a type of
automatic identification method that's already being used
to track everything from prescription drugs to pets and, in
some cases, even humans.
Experts predict 33 billion of these tiny chips will be produced
by 2010 -- 30 times the number produced in 2005.
An example of the rice-sized "Verichip,"
an implantable RFID tag.
Some tout these information tags as the new-and-improved
bar code, as RFIDs are capable of holding much more information
and do not require line-of-sight scanning, meaning they can
be read from a distance.
"When you buy a can of Coke with a barcode on there,
all that will tell is that it's a can of Coke. With an RFID
tag, if you bought a sweater, it would not just tell that
it's a certain kind of sweater, it will tell you it's sweater
No. 2,000,456," says Bartek Muszynski, the president
of Vancouver-based RFID consulting firm NJE Consulting Inc.
This is why drug maker Pfizer plans to attach RFID tags to
all shipments of its popular drug Viagra by the end of the
first quarter 2006, and other manufacturers are following
suit. RFIDs provide a novel and effective way to deter counterfeiting.
As it stands, many companies use the tags to track inventory,
but RFIDs are set to enter the mainstream market in the near
At the heart of the growing controversy surrounding RFIDs
is whether or not they will one day represent a threat to
personal health, security or privacy.
Consumers Have a Right to Know
The potential implications of a microchip that can track
an object's movement and location, as well as things like
temperature (for food items like milk) and perhaps one day
human body functions, medical records, bank account numbers
and even how many eggs are left in your refrigerator, are
just beginning to be felt.
Several libraries, for instance, have begun to attach RFIDs
to books as a tracking device. However, what is not being
addressed is that if a book is being
tracked, so may be the person carrying it.
According to GS1 Canada, the international standards body
that governs RFID requirements, CEO Arthur Smith, safeguards
have been built into RFID tags to prevent abuse. For instance:
However, as more and more companies move tags from warehouse
cases onto individual items in stores, more security issues
"They [consumers] have the right to know whether a tag
is embedded in the product, the right to have RFID tags removed
or deactivated when the products are purchased, the right
to opt out of RFID-enabled services, the right to access the
RFID tag's data and the right to know when, where and why
the tags are being read," said Julie England, vice president
at Texas Instruments Inc.
Other tags, such as those attached to cell phones, credit
cards and "contactless" payment methods (such as
those given out by ExxonMobile to pay for gas station purchases),
are designed to be taken with a person everywhere, which means
the tag will not be deactivated at any time.
An example of an RFID tag that's embedded inside a
Positive Uses for RFIDs
RFID tags are allowing for some pretty amazing new inventions.
Talking prescriptions, which allow people with visual
impairments to "read" the drug's name, warnings,
etc. using a battery-powered talking prescription reader.
Pet identification. Tiny microchips can be implanted
into pets so they can be located and returned to their
owners if lost.
Cattle identification. RFIDs can replace barcode tags
and identify an animal's herd of origin.
Automatic toll collection. Perhaps the most common way
RFIDs are currently used, the tags allow tolls to be debited
from a prepaid account when vehicles drive by.
The Smart Key/Smart Start option for some vehicles.
This allows the owner to open their car's doors and start
the car while the key is still in their pocket or purse
(an RFID senses the key when it is within a range of about
Prison tracking wristbands, which can tell if an inmate
has tried to remove the band and sends an alert to a prison
computer in response.
Microchips for People?
The most controversial use of RFIDs is whether or not
they should be implanted into people. Already, 18 staff
members of the Mexican Attorney General's office have been
implanted with the "Verichip" to control access
to a data room.
More frivolously, two nightclubs -- the Baja Beach Club in
Barcelona, Spain and one in Rotterdam, Netherlands -- use
an implantable Verichip to identify their VIP customers and
allow them to buy drinks.
Business owner Amal Graafstra also had RFID chips implanted
into his hands in 2005.
"There's a small 3-millimeter-by-13-millimeter glass
RFID tag in both the right and left hands. I can get in my
front door, in my car door, and log into my computer,"
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the
first RFID chips that can be implanted into humans in October
2004. These chips are meant to store personal medical information
that could potentially save lives and limit injuries from
errors in medical treatments -- but they don't come without
The FDA warns of the following potential complications from
implanting Verichips into humans:
Adverse tissue reaction
Migration of the implanted transponder
Failure of implanted transponder
Possible incompatibility with magnetic resonance imaging
Another company, Lauren Scott California, plans to release
a new type of children's pajama by the end of this year that
would be embedded with an RFID tag. Parents would set up RFID
readers around their home that would create "a perimeter
that the child can't pass without a parent knowing,"
said Lauren Scott, the company's chief executive.
"Spy Chips" or Information Powerhouses?
RFIDs are set to explode across the world in the coming years,
bringing with it an inevitable surge of new inventions and
new concerns. Some consumer advocates have already dubbed
RFIDs "spy chips" and are concerned that "Big
Brother" could one day use them for mass surveillance.
"The key to success is finding this right balance between
privacy protection and the appropriate use of data,"
Adding in even more food for thought was California State
Senator Debra Bowen at a 2003 hearing. She summed up much
of the concern surrounding RFIDs in one sentence: "How
would you like it if, for instance, one day you realized your
underwear was reporting on your whereabouts?"
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