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RFID - More Interesting Than You Realised

Sep 12, 2008
RFID technology is something that most people would claim to know nothing about. The technology is not new, it has its roots as far back as 1946 and chances are, you are sitting within a few feet of an RFID device right now.

RFID, short for Radio Frequency Identification, is a umbrella term used to describe technologies that transmit the identity of a person, animal or object in the form of a unique serial number wirelessly, using radio waves. The technology is in the same category as barcodes, OCR and some biometric systems such at retinal scanning.

The applications of this technology are obviously massive, it can (and has) been used in security, identification and as a replacement for barcodes among other things. The Oyster card, London's prepaid public transport system uses RFID as does the similar Japanese Octopus card.

The RFID chips embedded in Oyster cards, passports, cattle and people across the globe come in two forms; passive and active. Active RFID holds its own power supply, passive requires no power. Passive RFID is the more commonly used and slightly less controversial of the two and it is passive RFID that I will be focussing on in this article.

Imagine the passive RFID in your Oyster card and the reader in the turnstiles at Charing Cross as two players in a game of table tennis. The reader serves the ball constantly and as long as the ball is not returned it knows that another player is not nearby. When a RFID chip is near to a reader it bounces back the signal, just like a table tennis player returning a serve. Now imagine that when the returning player (the RFID chip) hits the ball back his bat leaves a unique mark.

The serving player (the reader) always knows who returned the ball due to these identifying marks. This is essentially how Oyster cards work, the marks left on the proverbial table tennis ball represent the card's remaining balance and that balance is updated whenever the card is used to travel. This data is kept on a central database not on the chip itself. All that is usually on a RFID chip is a unique string of numbers that identifies it to aforementioned database.

Naturally, with a silent way of checking who has been moving where, people are concerned RFID can and will be used to create a big brother state. Companies have already produced and are heartily marketing RFID-proof clothing and a sleeve for your passport that prevents the chip being picked up unless the passport is opened and deliberately presented to a scanner/reader.

These concerns are natural and by no means unfounded but it must be considered that passive RFID is easily blocked, even thick clothing can disrupt the signal. It must also be kept in mind that passive RFID cannot be easily employed to track people in the traditional sense. You must pass by a sensor to be detected and all that is recorded is that you passed by, not your speed, your direction or even your actual identity. After all, to a RFID scanner you are nothing more than an anonymous string of digits.

As we speak I have a RFID wristband from Alton Towers YourDay system sitting on my desk. As I am hundreds of miles out of reach of their scanners the wristband is useless. Alton Towers have no idea where I am and even less idea who I am. These things considered, it is my personal opinion that concerns that we are being spied on using RFID are as valid as the worry of alien mind control or the interesting but ridiculous chemtrail poisoning theories.

Among the most exciting applications for RFID is the human sub-dermal implant. By placing a tiny RFID chip encased in silicate glass under the skin users can open RFID-enabled doors, start cars and store medical and personal information such as allergies or insurance details.

The possibilities are literally endless for the RFID implant. Eventually, a bead of glass the size of a grain of rice implanted in your wrist or hand could replace your keys, your credit card, your work swipe card/ID, your passport and even every username and password on every computer you own. Providing they are all equipped with the relevant RFID scanners of course.

With a nation-wide network of RFID scanners, the rough location of escaped criminals or missing children could be ascertained in moments. To some this may sound like tracking, a way for the dastardly government to keep an eye on us, but this is merely one application of a technology that could change the world, it could be the first step towards integrating man and machine, to becoming cyborgs.

One Spanish nightclub has begun offering RFID implants to it's VIP customers. They use them as a kind of debit card which means no need to carry wallets or cash, just scan your hand. These implants are hardly widespread, they are hardly used at all in fact. The one place they seem to have any semblance of popularity is in the body modification community where they are being seen almost as a 21st century piercing.

Transhumanists and cyberpunks are slowly embracing the RFID implant, at the moment it's more basic uses are those you commonly hear of, computer locks and ID cards. One tattoo parlour even uses RFID implants as the staffs sign-ons for the cash register, I can only assume that they are removed when the employee stops working for the parlour.

The medical applications of RFID are fast becoming one of the hot topics surrounding this exciting technology. Implants containing the medical history, allergies, insurance details and personal details of patients would allow medical staff to quickly identify and treat patients in emergency situations.

The American FDA only approved the implants for such use relatively recently and so this application is in its infancy. The massive impact it could have on emergency medicine is obvious. Patients full medical histories could be accessed even if the patient is unconscious or incapable of speech. If only used for this purpose RFID implants will still be one of the biggest technological revolutions since the internet was born.

The terrible shame about this technology is that it is unlikely to be welcomed with open arms by the general public. The tin-foil hat brigade will always voice their over-enthusiastic conspiracy theories and scare people off long before RFID implants can really take hold.

Some might be put off by the whole implantation thing and that's fair enough, it's a pretty big needle after all. I for one intend to embrace this potentially world-changing technology as soon as RFID enabled locks and cars become readily available. Someone call Sarah Connor, I'm going cyborg.
About the Author
Samantha is an expert Research and Theatre consultant. Her current interests are UK shortbreaks including Play and Stay and Theme Park Breaks.
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