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RFID tags: Do they have a secure future?

How do RFID tags work? Do they have a future?

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Radio Frequency Identification Device (RFID) tags can be attached to products, animals or people. They transmit radio waves containing information about the tagged item to a handheld device that reports back to a centralized computer system and database for recording the data. If a product has an RFID tag, one would simply have to swipe their handheld device over the tag and the information would be tracked.

Wal-Mart put RFID on the map in 2005, when they informed their 100 largest suppliers that in order to conduct business with the chain, their inventory must be tagged.

The possibilities for using these devices are endless. They can be used to track warehouse inventory, animals and livestock, and have been tested on humans for identity confirmation, age verification for entering bars and to automatically retrieve medical records from tagged patients in hospitals. They are also being used in subways and toll collection systems, some on a trial basis, as a means for automatic payments so drivers and riders can pass through turnstiles without stopping.

Does RFID have a future? Probably. Despite the media hype over Wal-Mart, RFID will most likely become more common for tracking things and people. However, before its use becomes widespread, the following issues need to be resolved:

  1. Privacy. Although RFID tags are supposed to only emit radio waves a short distance, radio receivers can receive the tags over longer ranges than expected. Which means if the tag contains personal information, the data can be sniffed.
  2. RFID data isn't secure. It generally travels unencrypted and can be either snatched, or worse spoofed, for malicious purposes. A radio transmitter spoofing an RFID tag could transmit bogus data to the receiving computer system to steal warehouse inventory for example.

Once security is strengthened and privacy is better protected, RFID will likely become more popular.

This was first published in August 2006

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