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section heading icon     overview

This profile considers radio frequency identification (aka RFID) technologies, applications and issues.

It covers -

  • an orientation on this page of regarding RFIDs
  • technologies - an introduction to how RFIDs work
  • applications - an exploration of some business, government and institutional uses that range from passports and vehicle tagging to inventory management in warehouses, surgical theatres and libraries
  • implants - debate (and demonisation) regarding identification of companion animals, livestock and people through subcutaneous implants
  • numbering and standards - questions about RFID numbering schemes and standards
  • issues - performance questions and regulation, in particular regarding privacy and safety
  • advocacy - RFIDs as an example of anxieties about new technologies and modernity.

The profile supplements the broader examination elsewhere on this site regarding privacy, the global information infrastructure, identity, consumer protection, security, passports and e-business.

section marker     introduction

RFID technologies have been spruiked as offering fundamental efficiencies in supply chain management, substantial benefits for agriculture and human health services, improved security and positive outcomes in applications that range from library collection management to user-pays road networks.

They have also attracted concerns about privacy and consumer protection. In some circles they have replaced mobile phones as a focus for the free floating anxieties explored in Adam Burgess' Cellular Phones, Public Fears & A Culture of Precaution (Cambridge: Cambridge Uni Press 2004).

They have also been hyped as unprecedented and inherently sinister.

The chiliastic Spychips: How Major Corporations and Government Plan to Track Your Every Move with RFID (New York: Thomas Nelson 2006) by Katherine Albrecht & Liz McIntyre for example mixes passages from the Bible with questions about how a Hitler would use RFID. Their The Spychips Threat: Why Christians Should Resist RFID & Electronic Surveillance (New York: Thomas Nelson 2006) reportedly "ties in these ominous new devices to current Christian thought about the coming New World Order", presumably a refreshing change from alien implants. A more nuanced critique is provided in 'The Social Implications of Humancentric Chip Implants: A Scenario – ‘Thy Chipdom Come, Thy Will Be done' (Faculty of Informatics Paper 2008) (University of Wollongong) by Rodney Ip, Katina Michael & M Michael.

Albrecht explained in 2006 that "My goal as a Christian [is] to sound the alarm", with RFIDs as the mark of the Beast presaging the End Times and consumers being compelled "to receive a mark on their right hand or on their foreheads". Hiawatha Bray's 'Usefulness of RFID Worth the Annoyance' in the 12 April 2004 Boston Globe commented that -

Albrecht’s a smart and charming woman, but she might have opposed the invention of the telephone, out of fear that the government would listen in. She'd have been right, too. But we dealt with that problem through laws, not by abandoning the idea of telecommunications.

Eschatological zaniness aside, many people in advanced economies are familiar with RFIDs as the basis of domestic pet identification registers, entry cards and automated road billing systems, such as the E-Tag used in some Australian tollways.

The past decade has seen significant advances in deployment of the technologies - notably integration of RFID tags with multi-user databases - and reductions in the cost of particular components. It is likely that those advances will accelerate, with a proliferation of applications, increased adoption in the public and private sectors, and debate about appropriate management or restrictions on use.

It is therefore useful to consider the technologies in their legal, commercial and cultural contexts rather than in isolation. Some concerns - and claimed benefits - are overstated. Many concerns are best addressed with reference to existing privacy principles and to application of effective protocols for the collection, handling and disposal of data by organisations and individuals.

section marker    
futures - from barcodes to the X-net

Some predictions about the future of RFIDs seem askew.

We for example regard promo for 'intelligent' washing machines that will interrogate tags in clothing for the correct tender loving care with the same skepticism with which we treat reports on the viability of the internet fridge.

It is unlikely that EPC tags will comprehensively replace barcodes in the immediate future - even if tag costs crash - given investment in those codes by over a million manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers. Forecasts for large-scale uptake of subdermal chips also seem misplaced, with the largest market for 'human' applications in the near future likely to be collars or bracelets used by custodial and healthcare institutions.

Visionaries have pictured a world - in practice the First World, rather than parts of Africa and Asia at the far end of some digital divides - where so-called 'smart dust' provides the basis for truly ubiquitous networking. Reduction of tag costs, resolution of interference problems and major advances in data handling would permit what has been characterised as the X-net or Web 3.0 ... in which softdrink cans, woolly jumpers, mobile phones, cats, dogs, grannies, cushions, cars and potplants each have one or more tags and can be meaningfully identified through applications drawing on numerous databases.

In practice it is not enough to give each anorak, artichoke or carbon-based biped a unique number - and even a discrete internet protocol address - associated with a tag. Making sense of that identity promises to be more difficult.

section marker     orientations

Points of entry to the literature on RFIDs include -

  • Patrick Plaggenborg's 2006 dissertation Social RFID: Internet For Things (PDF)
  • Katina Michael's 2003 dissertation The Technological Trajectory of the Automatic Identification Industry: The Application of the Systems of Innovation (SI) Framework for the Characterisation and Prediction of the Auto-ID Industry

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