What Has Happened to RFID?

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Way back in 2003, Walmart announced that it would require Radio Frequency ID (RFID) tags-so-called "electronic barcodes"-to be attached to virtually all merchandise. Walmart pioneered the use of the printed bar code back in the 1970s, and many-myself included-became convinced that the company's directive would be the tipping point leading to universal adoption of RFID tabs in consumer goods and elsewhere.

The technological advantage of the RFID over the bar code is its ability to be scanned from a distance. This allows all inventory in a store or warehouse to be immediately locatable and eliminates the need for manual stock takes. The potential applications of RFID technology are many, but, in business, this promise of perfect supply chain and inventory management seemed to provide an irresistible economic driver for rapid adoption.

Of course, not all predictions for the future were so rosy-many feared the widespread use of RFID in credit cards and other personal items would inevitably result in a universal surveillance society the likes of which George Orwell (author of 1984) could not have dreamed.

However, RFID adoption has not advanced nearly as fast as was first hoped (or feared). Factors that have slowed RFID adoption include the fact that the cost of an RFID chip has not fallen as fast and as far as hoped. The price target for mass RFID tags in 2003 was about 5 cents-today the cost of an RFID chip has more than doubled. Additionally, the cost of establishing RFID infrastructure is high-and it doesn't pay off until RFID usage is everywhere. It's a chicken-and-egg situation. And, concerns over security are well founded. Numerous security specialists have demonstrated that RFID technology is too easily spoofed and hacked.

While neither dreams nor nightmares have lived up to the hype, there are still plenty of examples of real-world RFID adoption. Many cities have adopted RFID-based ticketing for public transportation, which allows commuters to be electronically billed as they travel without the need to acquire and authenticate tickets. There is also no shortage of trivial or entertainment-oriented applications-such as RFID-enabled poker tables, RFID-enabled toys and RFID "find my keys" solutions.

New passports are almost always RFID-enabled. This may or may not save time in immigration (it hasn't saved me much time yet), but it probably assists border security in other ways. Unfortunately, this is definitely an area with a known dark side-security vulnerabilities have been found that would enable passport signatures to be easily copied, and the signatures can be used to identify the nationality and possibly the identity of potential terrorist targets from a distance.

Even more disturbing, suggestions in Indonesia that HIV/AIDS victims could be implanted with RFID chips certainly highlight the potential for human oppression.

There's probably no escaping the reality that RFID tags will be included in an increasing proportion of consumer goods and that business applications will increasingly feed off and exploit the feed of RFID data. The massive amount of real-world RFID data will have implications for database management, business intelligence, and all aspects of business applications.

There is an interesting potential synergy between RFID technology and the explosion of location-aware applications that are mainly the result of the GPS-enabled iPhone. It seems likely that very soon we'll be able to determine the location of most human beings, their possessions, and all sorts of other real-world objects. While this provides some obvious opportunities for consumer, community, and business applications, the degree of surveillance that will become possible is truly unprecedented.