HJ-ED-DHJHerald Journal Columns

September 18, 2006, Herald Journal

What’s next? How about RFID?


We all have seen those barcode labels that are on the packaging in the store, unless you’re George H.W. Bush, who is referred to as 41 by the current President. I guess he did not understand what those barcode lines were for when he made a visit to a grocery store one time during his presidency. Some Presidents don’t get out much.

I imagine he might not know what RFID tags are either, unless he remembered what an IFF transponder was.

The idea for radio frequency identification was first used in planes by the British during the late 1930s in WWII, and identified a plane as “friendly” or not. These RFID tags were called Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) transponders.

Today, the Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) is a way of attaching a very small device, like a computer chip, called a “tag,” to an object that allows its location to be determined by what is called an RFID Reader, that uses radio waves to identify the tag and the information it contains.

The tags, known as transponders, are mostly “passive” or needing no internal power source. The properties it is made out of (mostly silicon) can be programmed with a flash memory – just as a computer can have a Read Only Memory (ROM), so does the RFID tag.

The tag, once exposed to the RFID radio waves, will cause it to respond with the information it contains. This is a simple explanation, but I thought it was pretty good for an amateur.

The tag can contain information about the product, the manufacturer’s location, price, expiration date, date of purchase, and any other information the manufacturer would have associated with the product that this tag is connected to.

One of the reasons these RFID tags are becoming popular to incorporate into consumer products is that they do not need to be in the line-of-sight, like barcodes do when you scan them. This allows the product information to be more easily obtained than with standard barcodes.

The RFID reader can also query many products at one time, versus having to read each product individually, as we do now.

Very soon, we will be able to go to a mega store, or your convenient local store, walk your cart down those isles, place your items into your shopping cart, and as you approach the checkout register, your items will all have been scanned by the RFID reader and you will know what your total is right away. You will be able to pay for it in the store, or if you have set up an account, you will be able to wheel your shopping cart directly out of the store and your charge account will be credited automatically.

What a nice time saver.

I read recently that one of those large “wall” stores is to start using this technology in 500 of their stores before the end of this year. Mostly the tags will be used to identify the contents on their inventory pallets that have the products in them. Many suppliers will be required to start using RFID tags when shipping their products to the store.

It is getting closer to where, soon, we will see this new technology in action as it will be incorporated/tagged into each product we buy. I sure hope it works better than when I scan the barcode items through the self-checkout, as I usually need to have an associate come over and tell me I need to place this item aside, and not on the product weight-sensitive measurement stand they have.

Now, I am aware that these RFID tags could become controversial if used to gain information other than that was intended, or that we think they are being used for. This could, and has caused privacy concerns among some people and groups.

I would not want to have an RFID chip implanted into my arm for example. That would be just too much like something out of George Orwell for me. A Medic-Alert bracelet is one thing, but this is a little too far out for me.

Most concerns revolve around the fact that RFID tags attached to products remain functional even after the products have been purchased and taken home, and thus can be used for surveillance purposes unrelated to their supply chain inventory functions.

Although RFID tags are only officially intended for short-distance use, they can be queried from greater distances by anyone with a high-gain antenna, potentially allowing the contents of a house to be scanned at a distance, something noticeably Orwellian in nature.

There is one quote by Debra Bowen, the California state senator I found interesting, well mildly interesting and somewhat funny, when I read it. She said at a 2003 hearing, “How would you like it if, for instance, one day you realized your underwear was reporting on your whereabouts?” Well, for one thing, I would have removed the tag when I got out to the parking lot, or I could tear it off (I think) and throw the tag in a refuse container.

I might, however, be inclined leave the RFID tag on if it was attached to those new pillows that have the message “do not remove this tag under the penalty of law . . .” thing written on them.