Radio Frequency Identification tags (RFID)

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Minute tags embedded in many different physical devices link up the material world with the information super-highway. Technological obstacles, regulatory issues and privacy concerns must, however, be dealt with before the technology can be implemented to its full potential. 

Background

Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags are small and relatively low-cost circuits capable of communicating with a fixed or portable device, the reader. In order to do so, an antenna, usually made of tin foil, must be attached to the silicone chip. Chip and antenna together are referred to as RFID tags or transponders. RFID tags can be attached to consumer goods, packaging and other items, and they can also be implanted into animals and even humans. 

Readers are linked to special middleware (computing hardware and software). RFID-based technology can therefore provide the missing link between the material world (commodities, stocks) and its virtual representation in a computing system. 

Three kinds of RFID are in use: 

Passive RFID tags do not need a power supply of their own; the minute tension induced from a radio frequency signal emitted by the reader is sufficient to activate their circuit and to send out short digital information streams in response. Typically, this information consists of an unique identification number that points to an entry in a data base. 

Semi-passive RFID tags have built-in batteries and do not require energy induced from the reader to power the microchip. This allows them to function with much lower signal power levels and over greater distances than passive tags. They are, however, considerably more expensive. 

Active RFID tags have an on-board power-supply, usually a battery, of their own. This allows for more complex circuits to be powered and for more functionality. 

Applications: Passive RFID tags are being used by the millions in stores, where they facilitate supply-chain managementstoragestocktakingtheft protectionencashingrecycling and waste disposal. They facilitate some airports' baggage retrieval systems. RFID are also embedded in electronic documents, for example in the so-called e-passport, which is being introduced throughout the EU, as a result of Council Regulation No 2252/2004

Issues

Future trends

600 million RFID tags were sold in 2005. Research completed by Commission Services predicts that the value of the market, including hardware, systems and services, may increase by a factor of ten between 2006 and 2016. The sheer number of tags delivered in 2016 is predicted to be more than 450 times the number delivered in 2006. 

The preconditions for this wide-spread application were cost reduction, enhanced performance and miniaturisation.  The smallest tags are now around two square millimetres in size and are 0.0075mm thick; they can be embedded in shoes, garments, cardboard wrappers and even sheets of paper. Polymer-based tags being developed could replace current silicone-based chips. They could be produced using printing technologies, which would reduce their additional cost to almost naught. 

In the future, passive as well as active tags, together with a growing number of embedded reading devices, could become an enabling technology of what has been labelled 'the intelligent home', 'ambient intelligence' and 'ubiquitous computing', wherin consumer goods and household items would 'communicate' with each other and with computing devices - both local and elsewhere. 

Standards

In order for different devices from different producers to work smoothly together, they will have to follow common standards. A number of bodies work together to establish those standards: 

  • GS1 is the global industry alliance defining interoperability standards for supply chain management. Currently, GS1 administers interoperable standards for barcodes on packaging.
  • Together with its US equivalent GS1 US, GS1 has formed EPC global. The industry association with a world-wide membership develops what it calls "industry-driven standards for the Electronic Product Code (EPC) to support the use of Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) in today’s [...] trading networks". Currently, EPC global is working on specifications for a generation two ('Gen 2') standard, which should include feature requests from the industry and accommodate legal requirements concerning for instance privacy and data security.
  • The international standardisation body ISO has passed the ISO 18000 standard, parts 1 to 7 of which which lay down parameters for the so-called air interface (transmission) in the different frequency bands. ISO might adapt 'Gen 2' as ISO 18000-6C.

Frequency management

ISO standards lay down five frequency bands in the Low Frequency (LF), High Frequency (HF), Ultra-High Frequency (UHF) and microwave or Super-High Frequency (SHF) bands. As a rule of thumb, the higher the frequency is, the more data can be transmitted, the longer maximum read-out distances are and, as a consequence, the more functionality can be added to the tag. For LF tags, the technical read-out distance is a few centimetres, for HF and UHF tags a few metres and for tags operating in the microwave band up to hundreds of metres. For supply chain purposes, the two frequency bands (860-960 MHz and 433 MHz) in the UHF spectrum are most important. Active tags can only operate in the UHF and microwave spectrums. 

However, in a time of increasingly prevalent wireless applications, frequency is a scarce commodity. Frequency management and allocation are becoming controversial issues, because they imply a regulatory choice of one technology over another. In November 2006, the Commission addressed these issues with a Decision on harmonisation of the radio spectrum for radio frequency identification (RFID) devices operating in the ultra high frequency (UHF) band

Privacy and data protection

Data protection practitionersconsumer advocates and NGOs are concerned over privacy implications of a wide-spread introduction of RFID. In brief, the concerns voiced by the Article 29 Group of data protection commissioners and confirmed by the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) are:

  • RFID could be used to collect personal data. For example, retailers could tie a client's personal data, such as a credit card number, to an RFID tag embedded in an item they sold. Individuals could then be identified when they revisit a store and their movements could be monitored.
  • Personal data could be stored on RFID tags. This could for example occur with RFID-based ticketing systems for public transport, where itineraries chosen by an individual could, together with exact times, be stored on a card or on computers. 
  • RFID could be used to track individuals. Shops could for example hand out tokens with embedded RFID that allow for certain advantages or can be used for activating trolleys. Using readers distributed throughout the shop and more RFID embedded in consumer goods, the shop would be able to track the customer's purchase habits. 
  • When data stored on RFID-enabled items (such as travel documents, credit cards, banknotes, medicines) is not effectively enough encrypted, anyone with a reader and sufficient knowledge could invade the privacy of a person carrying those items. 

As a solution for RFID-enabled consumer goods, it has been suggested that embedded RFID should have a 'deactivation' or 'kill' option. The Commission endorsed this line in a recommendation which requires retailers to deactivate RFID tags at the point of sale. The document underlines that persons must be informed in a clearly understandable manner of the presence of RFID tags in items they may be carrying, and of reading devices where such is the case. 

Positions

Information Society and Media Commissioner Viviane Reding is known as a keen promoter of RFID technology. "We need to build a society-wide consensus on the future of RFID. We need to ensure that RFID technology delivers on its economic potential and to create the right opportunities for its use for the wider public good, while ensuring that citizens remain in control of their data". 

Peter Hustinx, the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS), in an opinion sent to the Commission, said: "RFID systems could play a key role in the development of the European Information Society but the wide acceptance of RFID technologies should be facilitated by the benefits of consistent data protection safeguards. Self-regulation alone may not be enough to meet the challenge. Legal instruments may therefore be required to guarantee that the technical solutions to minimise the risks for data protection and privacy are in place."

Monique Goyens, director of BEUC, the European consumers organisation, saidexternal : "All new technologies bring their share of advantages and drawbacks. RFID directly affects the very sensitive question of protection of privacy and personal data. Accordingly, all necessary measures must be taken to keep consumers from being relentlessly tracked and profiled."

Speaking for SME association UEAPMEFreek Posthumus said that with the present technology of barcoding items, the lack of interoperable standards was used by big companies to the detriment of their smaller partners, often requiring additional barcoding by SMEs. He urged, therefore, interoperable standards to apply to RFID already on an item level.

Oracle commented: "We consider RFID to be a technology that will have very many beneficial applications. Oracle therefore welcomes the EU’s open, collaborative and consultative approach to RFID policy development. As an international company, we also thoroughly support the EU’s call for collaboration and co-operation on the development of technologies and standards both inside its borders and on the international stage. We would like to see the EU encouraging RFID development by providing a supportive regulatory environment in which innovation can flourish."

CompTIA, a global ICT industry association, underlined in a letter to the Commission that "there is a dramatic skills gap of qualified ICT professionals who understand the technology". The text adds that "RFID skills shortages should be seriously addressed by national and European policymakers". "The recommendation should therefore include a provision referring to the necessity to take actions to tackle this situation," the document concludes.

"With the adoption of the Recommendation, we now have clarity and a framework in which manufacturers and retailers can begin or expand deployments to deliver the benefits of RFID for consumers in Europe,” said Miguel Lopera, Chief Executive Officer of GS1 EPCglobal, an organisation that promotes RFID standards, commenting the European Commission Recommendation on RFID.

On behalf of retailers, EuroCommerce Secretary General Xavier Durieu said: “We fully support the protection of consumers’ privacy, but the Commission text does not take into account the practical consequences. On the contrary, by adding constraints on operators, it will reduce the attractiveness of the new technology for them. This will inevitably be reflected in the costs. If RFID is to develop its full potential, and to contribute to European competitiveness, it must be made easy, cheap and attractive, both to develop and to use.” 

However, big retailers did not back the line of EuroCommerce. The European Retail Round Table (ERRT), which represents big chains such as Carrefour or Metro, replied: "“There has been much discussion with consumer groups and others over the past 2-3 years about the uses of RFID, and the need to balance the benefits it can bring with the need to ensure the highest standards of privacy and data protection. We believe this Recommendation achieves that balance, allowing the technology to develop while ensuring that those who use the technology will use it responsibly and sensibly", Paul Skehan, ERRT Director said in a statement

Ryo Imura of Hitachi, representing one of the main manufacturers of devices using RFID, underlined the advantages of always-on tags: "RFID is key for the traceability of products, also after their sale. RFID is not only for industries and for supply chains, but also for people. Consumers can know where what they buy come from and can be helped in the maintenance, the potential recovery and the recycling," he said at a conference taking place alongside the ministerial meeting.

Timeline

Further Reading

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