What is RFID?

RFID stands for Radio-Frequency IDentification. The acronym refers to small electronic devices that consist of a small chip and an antenna. The chip typically is capable of carrying 2,000 bytes of data or less. The RFID device serves the same purpose as a bar code or a magnetic strip on the back of a credit card or ATM card; it provides a unique identifier for that object. And, just as a bar code or magnetic strip must be scanned to get the information, the RFID device must be scanned to retrieve the identifying information. RFID Works Better Than Barcodes A significant advantage of RFID devices over the others mentioned above is that the RFID device does not need to be positioned precisely relative to the scanner. We're all familiar with the difficulty that store checkout clerks sometimes have in making sure that a barcode can be read. And obviously, credit cards and ATM cards must be swiped through a special reader. In contrast, RFID devices will work within a few feet (up to 20 feet for highfrequency devices) of the scanner. For example, you could just put all of your groceries or purchases in a bag, and set the bag on the scanner. It would be able to query all of the RFID devices and total your purchase immediately. (Read a more detailed article on RFID compared to barcodes.) RFID technology has been available for more than fifty years. It has only been recently that the ability to manufacture the RFID devices has fallen to the point where they can be used as a "throwaway" inventory or control device. Alien Technologies recently sold 500 million RFID tags to Gillette at a cost of about ten cents per tag. One reason that it has taken so long for RFID to come into common use is the lack of standards in the industry. Most companies invested in RFID technology only use the tags to track items within their control; many of the benefits of RFID come when items are tracked from company to company or from country to country. Common Problems with RFID Some common problems with RFID are reader collision and tag collision. Reader collision occurs when the signals from two or more readers overlap. The tag is unable to respond to simultaneous queries. Systems must be carefully set up to avoid this problem. Tag collision occurs when many tags are present in a small area; but since the read time is very fast, it is easier for vendors to develop

systems that ensure that tags respond one at a time. See Problems with RFID for more details.

How RFID Works
How does RFID work? A Radio-Frequency IDentification system has three parts:
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A scanning antenna A transceiver with a decoder to interpret the data A transponder - the RFID tag - that has been programmed with information.

The scanning antenna puts out radio-frequency signals in a relatively short range. The RF radiation does two things:
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It provides a means of communicating with the transponder (the RFID tag) AND It provides the RFID tag with the energy to communicate (in the case of passive RFID tags).

This is an absolutely key part of the technology; RFID tags do not need to contain batteries, and can therefore remain usable for very long periods of time (maybe decades). The scanning antennas can be permanently affixed to a surface; handheld antennas are also available. They can take whatever shape you need; for example, you could build them into a door frame to accept data from persons or objects passing through. When an RFID tag passes through the field of the scanning antenna, it detects the activation signal from the antenna. That "wakes up" the RFID chip, and it transmits the information on its microchip to be picked up by the scanning antenna. In addition, the RFID tag may be of one of two types. Active RFID tags have their own power source; the advantage of these tags is that the reader can be much farther away and still get the signal. Even though some of these devices are built to have up to a 10 year life span, they have limited life spans. Passive RFID tags, however, do not require batteries, and can be much smaller and have a virtually unlimited life span. RFID tags can be read in a wide variety of circumstances, where barcodes or other optically read technologies are useless.

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The tag need not be on the surface of the object (and is therefore not subject to wear) The read time is typically less than 100 milliseconds Large numbers of tags can be read at once rather than item by item.

In essence, that's how RFID works.

How is RFID used inside a living body?
RFID devices that are intended to be implanted inside a living body (like an animal or human being) have special requirements. They need to be encased in a special kind of casing that will not irritate or react with the living tissues that they are inserted into. The casing must also be transparent to the scanning radiofrequency beam that activates the chip. Some RFID vendors have created biocompatible glass for use in these applications. One potential problem with being placed within a living organism is that the tiny RFID device may move around under the skin. This can be avoided by using special materials that actually let the surrounding tissue grow up to the casing and bond with it. Because the radio-frequency waves that activate the microchip containing the identification number are only useful within a few feet (or less), the RFID chip is typically inserted very close to the surface of the skin. The placement of the device is usually done with a hyperdermic-type needle. This method of insertion also dictates the shape and size of the device; implantable RFID devices are typically the size and diameter of a grain of rice. For dogs, the device is usually implanted between the shoulder blades. RFID tags have been placed inside cows; some discussion of having all cows implanted with RFID devices has resulted from the recent scare with mad cow disease. Dog owners have used RFID tags to identify their pets rather than tattoos (the more traditional method). RFID tags, like the VeriChip tag, can also be implanted inside human beings.

What can RFID be used for?
RFID tags come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes; they may be encased in a variety of materials:

Animal tracking tags, inserted beneath the skin, can be rice-sized.

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Tags can be screw-shaped to identify trees or wooden items. Credit-card shaped for use in access applications. The anti-theft hard plastic tags attached to merchandise in stores are also RFID tags. Heavy-duty 120 by 100 by 50 millimeter rectangular transponders are used to track shipping containers, or heavy machinery, trucks, and railroad cars.

RFID devices have been used for years to identify dogs, for a means of permanent identification. Dog owners had long used tattoos, permanent ink markings, typically on the ears. However, these can fade with age and it may be difficult to get the animal to sit still while you examine him for markings. Many musical instruments are stolen every year. For example, custom-built or vintage guitars are worth as much as $50,000 each. Snagg, a California company specializing in RFID microchips for instruments, has embedded tiny chips in 30,000 Fender guitars already. The database of RFID chip IDs is made available to law enforcement officials, dealers, repair shops and luthiers.

Is RFID Technology Secure and Private?
Unfortunately, not very often in the systems to which consumers are likely to be exposed. Anyone with an appropriately equipped scanner and close access to the RFID device can activate it and read its contents. Obviously, some concerns are greater than others. If someone walks by your bag of books from the bookstore with a 13.56 Mhz "sniffer" with an RF field that will activate the RFID devices in the books you bought, that person can get a complete list of what you just bought. That's certainly an invasion of your privacy, but it could be worse. Another scenario involves a military situation in which the other side scans vehicles going by, looking for tags that are associated with items that only highranking officers can have, and targeting accordingly. Companies are more concerned with the increasing use of RFID devices in company badges. An appropriate RF field will cause the RFID chip in the badge to "spill the beans" to whomever activates it. This information can then be stored and replayed to company scanners, allowing the thief access - and your badge is the one that is "credited" with the access. The smallest tags that will likely be used for consumer items don't have enough computing power to do data encryption to protect your privacy. The most they can do is PIN-style or password-based protection.

Are There Concerns About How RFID Will Be Used? (Update)

Civil liberties groups (among others) have become increasingly concerned about the use of RFIDs to track the movements of individuals. For example, passports will soon be required to contain some sort of RFID device to speed border crossings. Scanners placed throughout an airport, for example, could track the location of every passport over time, from the moment you left the parking lot to the moment you got on your plane. In June, the Japanese government passed a draft RFID Privacy Guideline that stated the following:
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Indication that RFID tags exist Consumers right of choice regarding reading tags Sharing information about social benefits of RFID, etc. Issues on linking information on tags and databases that store privacy information. Restrictions of information gathering and uses when private information is stored on tags Assuring accuracy of information when private information is stored on tags Information administrators should be encouraged Information sharing and explanation for consumers

There are also concerns about the fact that, even after you leave the store, any RFID devices in the things you buy are still active. This means that a thief could walk past you in the mall and know exactly what you have in your bags, marking you as a potential victim. A thief could even circle your house with an RFID scanner and pull up data on what you have in your house before he robs it. Military hardware and even clothing make use of RFID tags to help track each item through the supply chain. Some analysts are concerned that, if there are particular items associated with high-level officers, roadside bombs could be set to go off when triggered by an RFID scan of cars going by. There was a recent report revealing clandestine tests at a Wal-Mart store where RFID tags were inserted in packages of lipstick, with scanners hidden on nearby shelves. When a customer picked up a lipstick and put it in her cart, the movement of the tag was registered by the scanners, which triggered surveillance cameras. This allowed researchers 750 miles away to watch those consumers as they walked through the store, looking for related items.

Next-Generation Uses of RFID?
Some vendors have been combining RFID tags with sensors of different kinds. This would allow the tag to report not simply the same information over and over, but identifying information along with current data picked up by the sensor. For

example, an RFID tag attached to a leg of lamb could report on the temperature readings of the past 24 hours, to ensure that the meat was properly kept cool. Over time, the proportion of "scan-it-yourself" aisles in retail stores will increase. Eventually, we may wind up with stores that have mostly "scan-it-yourself" aisles and only a few checkout stations for people who are disabled or unwilling.

What Are Zombie RFID Tags?
One of the main concerns with RFID tags is that their contents can be read by anyone with an appropriately equipped scanner - even after you take it out of the store. One technology that has been suggested is a zombie RFID tag, a tag that can be temporarily deactivated when it leaves the store. The process would work like this: you bring your purchase up to the register, the RFID scanner reads the item, you pay for it and as you leave the store, you pass a special device that sends a signal to the RFID tag to "die." That is, it is no longer readable. The "zombie" element comes in when you bring an item back to the store. A special device especially made for that kind of tag "re-animates" the RFID tag, allowing the item to reenter the supply chain.

Technical problems with RFID
Problems with RFID Standards RFID has been implemented in different ways by different manufacturers; global standards are still being worked on. It should be noted that some RFID devices are never meant to leave their network (as in the case of RFID tags used for inventory control within a company). This can cause problems for companies. Consumers may also have problems with RFID standards. For example, ExxonMobil's SpeedPass system is a proprietary RFID system; if another company wanted to use the convenient SpeedPass (say, at the drive-in window of your favorite fast food restaurant) they would have to pay to access it - an unlikely scenario. On the other hand, if every company had their own "SpeedPass" system, a consumer would need to carry many different devices with them. RFID systems can be easily disrupted Since RFID systems make use of the electromagnetic spectrum (like WiFi networks or cellphones), they are relatively easy to jam using energy at the right

frequency. Although this would only be an inconvenience for consumers in stores (longer waits at the checkout), it could be disastrous in other environments where RFID is increasingly used, like hospitals or in the military in the field. Also, active RFID tags (those that use a battery to increase the range of the system) can be repeatedly interrogated to wear the battery down, disrupting the system. RFID Reader Collision Reader collision occurs when the signals from two or more readers overlap. The tag is unable to respond to simultaneous queries. Systems must be carefully set up to avoid this problem; many systems use an anti-collision protocol (also called a singulation protocol. Anti-collision protocols enable the tags to take turns in transmitting to a reader. (Learn more about RFID reader collision.) RFID Tag Collision Tag collision occurs when many tags are present in a small area; but since the read time is very fast, it is easier for vendors to develop systems that ensure that tags respond one at a time. (Learn more about RFID tag collision.)

Security, privacy and ethics problems with RFID
The following problems with RFID tags and readers have been reported. The contents of an RFID tag can be read after the item leaves the supply chain An RFID tag cannot tell the difference between one reader and another. RFID scanners are very portable; RFID tags can be read from a distance, from a few inches to a few yards. This allows anyone to see the contents of your purse or pocket as you walk down the street. Some tags can be turned off when the item has left the supply chain; see zombie RFID tags. RFID tags are difficult to remove RFID tags are difficult to for consumers to remove; some are very small (less than a half-millimeter square, and as thin as a sheet of paper) - others may be hidden or embedded inside a product where consumers cannot see them. New technologies allow RFID tags to be "printed" right on a product and may not be removable at all (see Printing RFID Tags With Magic Ink).

RFID tags can be read without your knowledge Since the tags can be read without being swiped or obviously scanned (as is the case with magnetic strips or barcodes), anyone with an RFID tag reader can read the tags embedded in your clothes and other consumer products without your knowledge. For example, you could be scanned before you enter the store, just to see what you are carrying. You might then be approached by a clerk who knows what you have in your backpack or purse, and can suggest accessories or other items. RFID tags can be read a greater distances with a high-gain antenna For various reasons, RFID reader/tag systems are designed so that distance between the tag and the reader is kept to a minimum (see the material on tag collision above). However, a high-gain antenna can be used to read the tags from much further away, leading to privacy problems. RFID tags with unique serial numbers could be linked to an individual credit card number At present, the Universal Product Code (UPC) implemented with barcodes allows each product sold in a store to have a unique number that identifies that product. Work is proceeding on a global system of product identification that would allow each individual item to have its own number. When the item is scanned for purchase and is paid for, the RFID tag number for a particular item can be associated with a credit card number.

Advantages of RFID Versus Barcodes
RFID tags and barcodes both carry information about products. However, there are important differences between these two technologies:

Barcode readers require a direct line of sight to the printed barcode; RFID readers do not require a direct line of sight to either active RFID tags or passive RFID tags. RFID tags can be read at much greater distances; an RFID reader can pull information from a tag at distances up to 300 feet. The range to read a barcode is much less, typically no more than fifteen feet. RFID readers can interrogate, or read, RFID tags much faster; read rates of forty or more tags per second are possible. Reading barcodes is much more time-consuming; due to the fact that a direct line of sight is required, if the items are not properly oriented to the reader it may take seconds to read an individual tag. Barcode readers usually take a half-second or more to successfully complete a read.

Line of sight requirements also limit the ruggedness of barcodes as well as the reusability of barcodes. (Since line of sight is required for barcodes, the printed barcode must be exposed on the outside of the product, where it is subject to greater wear and tear.) RFID tags are typically more rugged, since the electronic components are better protected in a plastic cover. RFID tags can also be implanted within the product itself, guaranteeing greater ruggedness and reusability. Barcodes have no read/write capability; that is, you cannot add to the information written on a printed barcode. RFID tags, however, can be read/write devices; the RFID reader can communicate with the tag, and alter as much of the information as the tag design will allow. RFID tags are typically more expensive than barcodes, in some cases, much more so.

RFID Reader Collision
Reader collision occurs in RFID systems when the coverage area of one RFID reader overlaps with that of another reader. This causes two different problems:

Signal interference The RF fields of two or more readers may overlap and interfere. This can be solved by having the readers programmed to read at fractionally different times. This technique (called time division multiple access TDMA) can still result in the same tag being read twice. Multiple reads of the same tag The problem here is that the same tag is read one time by each of the overlapping readers. The only solution is to program the RFID system to make sure that a given tag (with its unique ID number) is read only once in a session.

RFID Tag Collision
Tag collision in RFID systems happens when multiple tags are energized by the RFID tag reader simultaneously, and reflect their respective signals back to the reader at the same time. This problem is often seen whenever a large volume of tags must be read together in the same RF field. The reader is unable to differentiate these signals; tag collision confuses the reader. Different systems have been invented to isolate individual tags; the system used may vary by vendor. For example, when the reader recognizes that tag collision has taken place, it sends a special signal (a "gap pulse"). Upon receiving this signal, each tag consults a random number counter to determine the interval to wait before sending its data. Since each tag gets a unique number interval, the tags send their data at different times.

Passive RFID Tag (or Passive Tag)
A passive tag is an RFID tag that does not contain a battery; the power is supplied by the reader. When radio waves from the reader are encountered by a passive rfid tag, the coiled antenna within the tag forms a magnetic field. The tag draws power from it, energizing the circuits in the tag. The tag then sends the information encoded in the tag's memory. The major disadvantages of a passive rfid tag are:
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The tag can be read only at very short distances, typically a few feet at most. This greatly limits the device for certain applications. It may not be possible to include sensors that can use electricity for power. The tag remains readable for a very long time, even after the product to which the tag is attached has been sold and is no longer being tracked.

The advantages of a passive tag are:
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The tag functions without a battery; these tags have a useful life of twenty years or more. The tag is typically much less expensive to manufacture The tag is much smaller (some tags are the size of a grain of rice). These tags have almost unlimited applications in consumer goods and other areas.

Active Tag (Active RFID Tag)
An RFID tag is an active tag when it is equipped with a battery that can be used as a partial or complete source of power for the tag's circuitry and antenna. Some active tags contain replaceable batteries for years of use; others are sealed units. (Note that It is also possible to connect the tag to an external power source.)

RFID tag
An RFID tag is a microchip combined with an antenna in a compact package; the packaging is structured to allow the RFID tag to be attached to an object to be tracked. "RFID" stands for Radio Frequency Identification. The tag's antenna picks up signals from an RFID reader or scanner and then returns the signal, usually with some additional data (like a unique serial number or other customized information). RFID tags can be very small - the size of a large rice grain. Others may be the size of a small paperback book.

RFID Reader
An RFID reader is a device that is used to interrogate an RFID tag. The reader has an antenna that emits radio waves; the tag responds by sending back its data. A number of factors can affect the distance at which a tag can be read (the read range). The frequency used for identification, the antenna gain, the orientation and polarization of the reader antenna and the transponder antenna, as well as the placement of the tag on the object to be identified will all have an impact on the RFID system’s read range.

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