Have you been tagged yet?

While more and more products are getting RFID tags, the final product to be tagged could well be you!

Imagine a day when a baby is born and a tiny RFID tag is placed in side his shoulder. That tag is its identification and as the baby grows up, all the personal details, school records and medical records are linked from the tag to a database. When he starts working, he can link his credit card to his tag and use it to shop, travel and spend his money all over the world. Sounds far-fetched? Think again.

Last year, the American FDA made a landmark decision. They approved the use of RFID tags on humans for medical purposes. Since then more then 1,000 people have been implanted with chips that can be placed just below the skin. In some cases, the chip has been implanted on a patient’s shoulder. This helps hospital staff access the person’s medical history in case of an emergency. It’s a painless process and the tag becomes a part of the body without any adverse reactions.

In Barcelona’s exclusive Baja Beach Club VIP customers are RFID tagged and use it to pay for their drinks. No bills and no credit cards. The money gets automatically transferred from the VIP’s bank account to the club’s account. In Mexico City police officers are tagged. This helps them access police databases. Also, if they’re abducted, then the police department will easily be able to track them. And it’s not limited to cops. Prisoners in the US are being tagged too. In some facilities in California and Illinois, prisoners wear transmitters that resemble a wristwatch. Authorities know where all the inmates are all the time. And when a prisoner tries to remove the tag, then it sends out an alert too.

While, in some cases all this might come in very handy, it would also be theoretically possible for a third party to trace the person and get confidential information about him. That has raised many issues of privacy. Moreover, it’s also possible for someone to find out where you are if you’ve bought a product that has an active RFID tag. So much so that it prompted a US Senator to say during a hearing: “How would you like it if, for instance, one day you realized your underwear was reporting on your whereabouts?”

So how does it all work?

These tags are nothing but “smart bar codes” that can talk to a network. While bar codes are a one-way street, the RFID tag is more “interactive”. This, thanks to a tiny silicon microprocessor that it has. While tagging of humans is still a very small percentage of all RFID tags, the biggest market currently is for products of high worth. Currently companies have managed to make a tag less than a dollar, so till the price is brought down even further, it will not be successful on the smaller products.

If a product is tagged, then it’s easier for a company to trace millions of products and manage them: right from the factory to the shops to which city they were being used right to the dustbin. It’ll be helpful during shopping too. With bar code you need a bar code reader to be physically in proximity with the product. And after the billing, the utility is usually over. Not so in the case of an RFID tag. In a fully RFID stocked supermarket, you would be able to put everything in a cart and walk out of the door and have the money for all the items directly deducted from your bank account.

RFID tags are already being used in large numbers for animal identification, anti-theft systems, container, truck and airline baggage tracking. Companies are planning to use tags on their assets in an effort to maintain them and prevent theft. All the major credit card companies are also planning what they call “contactless payment” cards this year itself.

Banks are particularly interested in using tiny tags during movement of bulk money. They would be hidden in such a manner that potential thieves would find it very difficult to find them and hence be trackable. Even putting an RFID tag on every currency note is an option that’s being explored, though that’s a long way off.

While the benefits of RFID tags are immense, the biggest deterrents are “privacy concerns”. The future will tell whether the common public will reject RFID tags or they will become as commonplace as mobile phones.

(This article appeared in Living Digital magazine in July 2005)

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