Right On Cue

One of the things that was discussed on my RFID course this week was the difference between the fiction of RFID and the fact. The course tutor also commented on how annoying he found some of the scare stories that periodically come out in the press. So today, right on cue, I come across this gem produced by the BBC.

The first problem is that it is somewhat confusing over how the technology works. Take for example the caption on the first picture – “RFID technology broadcasts information to electronic readersâ€? – giving images of your shopping broadcasting information out of the carrier bags as you walk along the street. Fundamentally that isn’t true – the chips only broadcast information if they have power, and that power comes from the radio wave produced by the reader, and is such low power that it can only read within a few metres at most, assuming that there is nothing that obstructs the signal.

They then go on to talk about the ability of the technology to track items, and talk to a representative from Metro Group. The reason they talk to them is thanks to the Future Store Initiative which includes a lot of interesting sequences showing how RFID tags could be used. The simple fact is that the majority of what is shown is total science fiction, and is impossible with the technology. The real question to ask is what Metro Group are doing with RFID now – the same with Wal-Mart in the US, another big leader. In both cases they are using it to track pallets of stock for shipping, not individual items. Nowhere near the impossible vision shown on the Future Store site.

The real highlight of the article for scare-mongering is the section quoting Vint Cerf where he expresses a concern about the chips being used for tracking, which is then combined with the statements from Metro over wanting to track food, and a statement from a former Australian Privacy Commissioner. This blossoms into a vision of individual soft drink cans being able to be tracked, which could end up on a crime scene. Firstly, try to think of a situation where an individual soft drinks can would need to be identified – compare the bar codes on a couple of identical products for a moment and you’ll see that they aren’t currently. Then move on to consider how someone could be individually associated with a drinks can, what would happen, would they have to give a fingerprint or retina scan whenever they bought a can from a vending machine? Even putting aside all that, having the tag attached to a can would render it virtually unreadable anyway, as the metal in the can would interfere with the signal. To be honest a criminal has more to fear from his mobile phone broadcasting his location than a drinks can.

All in all the entire article is based more on science fiction, than any sort of science fact.

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