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Northwest Explorer

Radio Frequency Identification Tags

Boon Or Bane?

Bob Rivers, host of the morning show for KZOK 102.5 in Seattle, shares his fascination of new technologies with his listeners on a regular basis.

This fascination took an interesting turn in the spring of 2006. He had read an article about Amal Graafstra, a Washington resident who had two radio frequency identification (RFID) devices implanted into his hands with the intent to use them for keyless entry into his car and home.

"I would love something like this because I am always losing my keys," says Rivers.

So on Monday , March 27, 2006, Graafstra and a doctor joined the morning crew. Rivers chose to have an RFID tag implanted in his hand live, on the air. The doctor would numb the injection site and then using a relatively small-bore syringe needle, implant the rice-grain sized device. As the time for implantation approached, Bob shared his last minute doubts with his listening audience.

His desire to be implanted ultimately outweighed his doubts. "I think I am ready to go ahead and do it. What have I got to lose?" he said and within a few moments the injection was complete. His next step is to install a reader in his car that will read the unique identification code and voila! he can open his car door by merely waving his hand near the reader.

Besides the curiosity factor, what other reason might he have for going through such a procedure? "My wife thinks I am crazy," Rivers says and this was a relatively pain-free way for him to support her conclusion.

There are basically three designs for an RFID tags; passive, semi-passive (or semi-active), and active. The difference between the three designs is the ability of the device to provide its own power to emit a radio frequency signal. In tandem with the tag, is an interrogator or reader. This second device is used to read the signal in much the same way a scanner in a local grocery store reads the bar code label on products.

The passive RFID tag is a tiny electrical circuit that does not contain its own power source, therefore this device is only able to emit its signal when a reader is used. This is accomplished through a small aerial antenna connected to the tag. The tag then uses the signal from the reader to power up and transmit its own signal back to the reader. Because the tag does not have its own battery, it has a very limited range and therefore it is necessary to have the reader in very close proximity to the RFID tag.

A semi-active RFID tag is a bit larger due to the addition of a battery to the circuit. This addition allows the aerial antenna to be better at broadcasting the RFID signal, making this device's response stronger, although not as strong nor as reliable as an active device.

In addition to its own power supply, an active device has a much larger design, allowing for the addition of sensors to the device so that it can collect data, such as temperature, and transmit an entire data set to the reader. The active device is also more powerful, permiting a larger range between the tag and the reader.

Diverse applications

A female polar bear, the world's largest land predator, lumbers across the ice in search of a ringed seal. She needs to feed heavily through the months of August and September to prepare for her long winter stay in the den that will be interrupted briefly by the birth of the cubs she is presently carrying. Her best bet for eating today is to find a seal that has emerged from a breathing hole in the ice. Along the way, she comes across a carcass left behind by a successful predator. She stops to consume the remains.

Upon closer inspection, a white module located behind her ear reveals itself as a new RFID tracking device. It was placed there earlier in the season by a group of scientists from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) with the purpose of studying this polar bear's solitary life. The scientists are particularly interested in better understanding the impact of climate change on the bear.

Previously the method used to track the bears was time consuming. An ear tag was applied to the bear along with an identification tattoo inside the bear's upper lip. Subsequently, the scientists would fly over the region until they spotted a bear. The bear would then be tranquilized and the scientist would have to physically inspect the bear to determine if it was tagged.

In 2005, USGS approached Integral RFID, a company located in Richland Wash., asking them to design an RFID system that would allow the scientists to track the bears remotely. The active RFID device that the company developed broadcasts its signal at least 1,800 feet, a 90-fold increase from other RFIDs of the time. It also is lightweight and resistant to inclement weather. The scientists are now able to fly within 1800 feet of the bears and remotely identify them by reading the RFID signal.

For many people, the use of the RFID technology to track animals for research purposes seems an innocuous application. However, when faced with the possibilities this technology provides for tracking people through their daily lives, the issue of personal privacy is raised.

Chris Parkinson, CEO of Integral RFID, addresses this issue as something that needs to be considered when creating new devices but "people are overreacting," he contends.

In everyday life, the most common use for this technology is in merchandise inventory. Wal-Mart is perhaps the most obvious example of this approach. This retailer has installed readers in doorways of warehouses that allow a worker to wheel a fully loaded pallet labeled with RFID tags past the reader that subsequently records the number of items contained on the pallet. As product leaves the warehouse, the same reader can keep track of the number of items leaving. This could be a huge time-saver; previously, people would have to scan bar codes on each item to accomplish the same goal.

There are people though who see the use of this technology as a trip down a slippery slope. They insist that it is too easy to take the next step and somehow link the consumer to the purchased product allowing for at the minimum, tracking of shopping habits or worse still identity theft.

Liz McIntyre and Katherine Albrecht address this issue in their book Spychips: How Major Corporations and Government Plan to Track Your Every Move with RFID. In an interview with Rob Hood of the Conservative Voice, McIntyre said that while companies planning to use RFID technology have told consumers they only have their best interests in mind, the authors have found evidence otherwise and lay it out in the book.

A recent bill passed by the Department of Homeland Security seems to justify the authors' concerns. House Resolution 418 was passed "To establish and rapidly implement regulations for State Driver's license and identification document security standards, to prevent terrorists from abusing the asylum laws of the United States ...."

One of the consequences of the Real ID Act, as it is more commonly known, is to imbed RFIDs into passports allowing for quick identification of travelers. Another possibility is that with the increased use of this national identification system, gathering of demographic information for the census becomes as easy as scanning the RFID to access a database of stored personal information.

Or consider applications in emergency response: It is 4:00am, and the local fire station receives an alarm for an office building. As the fire engines race to respond to the emergency, the emergency operator opens a screen containing information collected at the building of people who have scanned their employee identification as they entered the building but have not subsequently scanned out. The database even includes information about the most likely location of those individuals still in the building. The operator then communicates this to the firefighters as they arrive so they can organize their efforts to evacuate any employees from the burning building.

As is the case for most emerging technologies, there is a possibility for abuse and misuse of RFIDs. However, these concerns must be balanced with possible benefits that such technology could bring.

Kim Gunnerson is a doctoral degree candidate in physical chemistry at the University of Washington.


Top: The hand of Amal Graafstra after implantation of RFID tag. Photo: Amal Graafstra

Middle: A close up of a tagged polar bear's head showing the location of the RFID tag. Photo: Integral RFID

Bottom A schematic of the RFID tag used for polar bear tracking. Diagram: Integral RFID

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