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The Negative Impact of RFID

by Milton Kazmeyer

Radio frequency identification, or RFID, is a technology that uses tiny electronic tags to store and broadcast information. When exposed to a radio wave of the correct frequency, the tag broadcasts its information to the scanner, allowing users to collect large amounts of information quickly. The use of these tags to track and store information about individuals, however, has led to some concerns about their widespread use.

RFID Tags

RFID tags are small devices that contain a circuit designed to store information and an antenna for receiving and broadcasting radio signals. Passive tags are unpowered, relying on the energy from the incoming radio wave to power the broadcast, and have a range measured in feet. Active tags contain an integral power source of some kind, and can broadcast over larger distances. Common uses of RFID tags include encoding them with product information for inventory purposes and encoding personal data on identification or financial documents to speed verification.

Tracking

RFID tags allow companies to track items in inventory, but if the tags remain active after the point of purchase, they can also serve to track consumers. For instance, if you buy a shirt and the clerk neglects to deactivate the tag, the unique identifier in that tag will show up every time you return to the store to shop, or go anywhere else that uses RFID scanners for inventory purposes. Collating a scan of a worn RFID tag with a purchase can give a retailer your identity information, and from there allow them to build up a profile of your shopping and spending habits.

Privacy

Privacy concerns do not end at the retail level. If RFID becomes widespread, the ability to track someone via passive tags in clothing or carried items could become important in criminal investigations or civil disputes. RFID tags associated with big-ticket purchases could provide criminals with information about suitable households to target simply by scanning trash at the curb. Active RFID tags could even provide information to third parties about the contents of your home and your activities, all without your knowledge.

Identity Theft

Another downside of RFID’s widespread use is the possibility outsiders to gain access to identity data. Encoding personal data to RFID tags in passports and other important documents can speed customs checkpoints and other areas where citizens must show their papers, but third parties can also read these chips by using a scanner tuned to the right frequency. Government agencies and financial institutions that use RFID encode this information, but if a commonly used cipher is broken or compromised, it could lead to widespread identity theft.

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