Tech Talk

In the not too distant future cashiers may be extinct. Imagine going grocery shopping. You could stuff all your purchases in your knapsack and just wave your credit card as you exit.

The technology that will make this possible is called Radio Frequency Identification (RFID). RFID systems have two major parts: tags and readers. Basically, the tags store and transmit data – like a product identification code in this case – over radio waves. The readers pick up the information.

RFID tags will be on the goods you’ve bought which will allow a reader near the exit to automatically ring up your purchases through radio waves. Then you’ll just wave your RFID credit card or debit card in front of the reader and the money will be withdrawn from your bank account.

Then you get home put your groceries in the fridge. The tags allow your fridge to track what’s inside and warns you before food expires. When you run out of something, your fridge adds it to your shopping list or orders more online.

But what will replace signatures and PINs for credit and debit cards? One idea uses the way your fingers modify the radio signal as they move across the card to create a unique identifier. Another idea is to include a fingerprint sensor directly on the card. The card won’t transmit unless the finger touching the card matches the fingerprint stored in the card’s memory. This would also be safer than conventional biometric authorization methods, because your fingerprint isn’t stored in some database and blasted across the internet. It never leaves the card.

The use of RFID technology is expanding every day. The Japanese government is researching using RFID for information gathering after a disaster. They plan to sprinkle the tags over the area from the air. The tags would be equipped with heat, infrared, and vibration sensors which would allow them to sense the heat from a fire and detect the heat and vibration of a survivor’s body. Plans are to deploy the technology by 2007.

This type of technology is particularly attractive as an easy way to coordinate supply-chain management, inventory and shipment tracking. Wal-Mart has been aggressively pushing its suppliers to implement RFID technology for almost two years. Since then, Wal-Mart says that out-of-stock items are being replenished three times faster and the number of out-of-stock items that have to be manually filled has been cut by 10 per cent.

RFID tags come in two flavours: active and passive. An active tag runs on battery power to transmit its signal. Passive tags have no internal power source. They are jolted to life by the energy generated when the tag’s antenna receives a radio signal transmitted by a reader.

Although active tags are usually larger and more expensive than their passive counterparts, they’re also able to store more information and have longer ranges: tens of meters as compared to a few meters.

Nonetheless, there are a number of new concerns raised by RFID technology. Critics are concerned that if the tags are not deactivated before they leave stores, they could be used for all sorts of other purposes. A thief could scan your house to see if there is anything worth stealing, like that new plasma screen television you just bought. If you pay with a credit card, companies could track your purchasing habits. There are also security concerns about people walking around broadcasting their credit and debit card information.

One suggestion for credit and debit cards is to create a “pinch to use card” that would only broadcast when the holder applies pressure to a certain part of the card. Others suggest using strong encryption, but this would require larger, more complicated and more expensive tags. There has also been some research into the use of RFID jammers that could prevent any information from being recieved within a certain radius.

There is concern that RFID devices could be hacked and affected by viruses which spread between tags and readers. Has an airline ever lost your luggage? One scenario involves a RFID chips being used for baggage handling. If an infected tag entered the system it could spread to the readers and infect the airport’s database. The readers would then spread it to every tag they scanned. The bags would reach other airports and be scanned there. The infection could spread across the world in a matter of hours. The virus could be programmed so that no one’s luggage would make it to his or her destination.

Many countries around the world have started using RFID tags in their passports. Critics are worried that anyone with a RFID reader will be able to steal your personal information simply by being within a few meters of you.

It was reported earlier this year that the Dutch biometric passport could be scanned from 10 meters: that distance was supposed to be 10 centimetres. The information could then be stored and cracked within two hours to reveal the holder’s date of birth, photo and fingerprint.

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) is responsible for the guidelines that were used to design the Dutch passport. It has been reported that up to 100 countries around the world will design their passports to conform to these guidelines.

RFID technology provides another battleground for the clash between convenience and privacy. Like all new technologies, it raises new security issues. It is up to consumers to refuse to adopt this new technology until its safety is established.

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