Thursday, October 21, 2010

Steph’s Science Corner: RFID, or Modern Digital Age Privacy Threat #684

Welcome to 1984?

When I first received this week’s topic suggestion, I did what any inquiring mind might do: I typed RFID into Google. Near the top of the list were the usual websites that you might expect – Wikipedia,, news articles, technology journals, and a smattering of product descriptions by recognizable manufacturing companies. But nestled in between these sensible explanations were the occasional conspiracy theories, fear-o-blogs, and the relatively benign consumer advocate groups making a case against RFID technology because of its privacy-violating implications. While I sometimes believe that most members of my generation have conceded to the loss of certain kinds of privacy in our digitally efficient future, I was surprised to see that the discussion of morality and legality was comparatively quiet. We’ve been eased into it through the thrill of social networking and the convenience of high-speed communications, banking, and information technology. And for good or ill, it appears as if RFID is coming, and there’s little we can do to fight it.

RFID stands for Radio Frequency Identification, and the concept has been well understood for quite some time. You may have first encountered it in one its primitive forms – animal tagging – when you watched the Discovery Channel during Shark Week. But modern RFID technology is something that everyone who has ever owned a touch-and-go pass for a public transportation system or a key-coded access badge has experienced first-hand. Hell, if you have ever shopped at Wal-Mart then chances are you’re already an unknowing participant. The idea of being able to track the movements of a uniquely identified object is not foreign; we track shipments, we are comfortable with GPS devices, and we’ve scanned items using a barcode at the grocery store. Rather, what has everyone alarmed about RFID technology is how small, how cheap, how ubiquitous, and how unregulated it is in its current manifestation.

The science is relatively basic

Originally, “inductively coupled” RFID tags worked on the basic principles of electromagnetism. Scientists combine electricity and magnetism into one force because, while their methods of interaction differ, they are essentially two sides of the same phenomenon. A moving electrical charge will generate a magnetic field. A moving magnet will create an electrical current. Light waves have both an oscillating electrical component and an oscillating magnetic component – that’s why we call them electromagnetic waves. Inductively coupled RFID tags are essentially unpowered circuits, the function of which is to emit unique radio waves once they’re powered on. When an external moving magnetic field approaches one, it induces an electric current within the circuit, causing the device to turn on and emit its signal. This signal can then be picked up and identified.

These devices were bulky and usually made of glass, big metal coils and bulky antennae. Newer innovations in RFID technology utilized digital data-storing microchips and much smaller antennae. One of these chips can store around two kilobytes of data, which is more than enough space to code a pretty long string of identifying numbers within. But the principle is still somewhat the same – the chip emits radio waves that can be modulated and demodulated to transmit and interpret information.

Active, passive, or maybe just passive-aggressive?

RFID access card Every RFID system requires two components: a tag to store an identifier and a reader to collect it. There are three types of commonly used RFID tags. Passive tags are the type that we are most familiar with. Inside every badge that you’ve ever used to gain entry into a locked building or every Smartpass you’ve ever scanned at a metro station is a small circuit, like what’s shown on the left. Passive RFID tags require a reader nearby to act as a power source in order to transmit their information (see above explanation on induction), and because of that, they’re limited in their reach (usually around a maximum of 20 feet). These types of tags are meant for cheaper applications. For example, these labels can be placed on consumer goods, like a gallon of milk or a bottle of soap, and because modern manufacturing has lowered the production costs to 10-20 cents per tag, they can easily be considered disposable.

RFID active chipTwo other types of tags – active and semi-passive tags – require internal batteries to power their circuits. In the case of active tags, this battery powers the constant broadcast of radio waves, which can boost the readability range to up to 300 feet. Because of the increased size of hardware and packaging for these circuits, they are much more expensive to produce.

The hopes for a global network of tracking

The advertised motivation to integrate RFID into the everyday consuming world (rather than just leaving it to, say, military and security applications) is the establishment of a high-efficiency supply-and-tracking network. Each item that you purchase could be followed in its entirety. You could verify your food’s production and expiration dates. That information could be transmitted to your smart phone. You can imagine a trip to the store in which you simply load up your grocery cart and walk out, each item registering as you exit and the cost of your trip being immediately deducted from your bank account. The store’s inventory would then be automatically updated, and manufacturers could receive near-instantaneous information about their products’ success. Perhaps your milk could send your phone a message when it’s due to spoil. When you recycle the carton, your disposal container could update your electronic shopping list, and so on.

And then of course, advertising could be even more specifically catered to your specific needs. Stores could track your purchases and create unique coupons just for you. Oh wait. We have that already. That’s why grocery stores started luring everyone into obtaining membership cards by offering low-prices and savings for cardholders only, isn’t it?

But that’s still a development that is based on a barcode reading system. RFID is faster, better, hotter, and has a much longer range of readability. It’s the future of shopping and tracking.

There is an increased security risk that comes with RFID technology. A reader does not have to be unique to withdraw and store information from a tag. It’s just a radiofrequency interpreter. A person down the street could scan data from your tagged credit card without your knowledge (called skimming). When your passive identification is activated, it projects signal in all directions, which can be picked up by someone nearby (called eavesdropping). Electromagnetic waves are not stopped by cloth or plastic or your wallet. There are ways to protect against these attacks, but like any malicious intention, determination breeds innovation.

The privacy and legality discussion that my generation must be engaged in

The convenience of RFID doesn’t stop with just shopping. You can tag your pets in case they run away, tag your children in case they’re abducted, tag your murders in case they escape, or tag illegal drug paraphernalia to catch suspected abusers. But that’s when we run across the privacy question. How comfortable are we with our movements being tracked at all times? The technology currently exists to make these tags as thin as a strip of ink and as small as a grain of sand (the current size record is less than a millimeter). How do we feel about the idea that this stuff is real – and perfectly legal – right now?

In 2006 the Department of State began issuing electronic passports in an effort to increase security measures while still maintaining efficiency. These passports carry an RFID chip identifier. In 2007, the RFID hand implantstate of California passed a law prohibiting employers from forcing workers to obtain RFID implants in response to stories of voluntary experiments in human implantation. Developments like these prompted the response of consumer advocate groups nationwide, including the efforts of CASPIAN and its founder Dr. Katherine Albrecht. In 2005, she and fellow member Liz McIntyre published a book called Spychips: How Major Corporations and Government Plan to Track Your Every Move with RFID, and they continue to run a website of the same name, invoking some very conceivable terrors of a looming Orwellian society. Dismissive of those that choose to see RFID as a sign of the impending rapture, they nevertheless raise some alarming realities about what could be conceived in light of this advancement in modern identification technology, regardless of how much of a current reality you believe it to be.

My goal in this weekly feature is not to share my opinion, but rather to answer and to hopefully raise some significant questions. I won’t enlighten you with my personal stance on this issue. At the very least, however, I have not in the past, and will not continue to ignore the implications of the rapid-paced, technologically saturated future we are careening towards. With our ability to communicate instantaneously and cheaply across the entire expanse of the globe, scientific advancement can now move at a significantly faster rate than laws can be written to regulate or monitor it, and RFID is just one of the many slightly unnerving products in a world of open information. At times it seems that this world must be the necessary platform from which to satiate our technological hunger, but what are the consequences? RFID is here, and it’s everywhere. I encourage you to get informed, and to be engaged.

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