View Full Version : Tag - you're it

05-12-2006, 07:16 AM
Radio frequency identification keeps tabs on goods, services, pets - even people

By Dan Vierria -- Bee Staff Writer
Published 2:15 am PDT Friday, May 12, 2006

Feel like you're being followed? Maybe it's a tracking tag on your jeans or one implanted in a credit card.

The tags are called radio frequency identification or RFIDs, and every day they are becoming more and more a part of our lifestyle.

These Orwellian microchips, as minute as a grain of sand, identify and track products and even lost children at theme parks. They're being implanted in humans to alert hospitals about medical conditions.

RFIDs communicate by radio frequency with a "reader," sending information to the database for processing. The tags can be so tiny, you may never know they are there.

Retailers claim RFIDs are essential: alerting them when they're low on lipstick, air filters, sodas and other inventory without having to send someone to check in person. And the chips can help spot a thief taking a product out of the store. If a store sells three of its 10 pairs of Nike shoes, yet the RFID system shows only two pairs in stock, the store is instantly alerted of possible theft.

Consumer privacy advocates regard RFIDs as nothing more than spyware, an invasion of privacy, to track people and their habits.

Levi Strauss & Co., at the request of two franchise stores in Mexico, last year tested RFID tags on its Levi's and Dockers. Later, Levi conducted a similar test for a U.S. store. When the tests recently were reported, opponents of RFID cried spyware.

"We were stunned," says Katherine Albrecht, founder of Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering. "Clothing is the place where consumers most understand the potential for tracking people. ... We know the clothing industry wants to move toward embedded tags."

Levi says the RFID tags helped manage inventory, weren't embedded and were easily removable.

"These are little paper tags that you tear off and throw away," says Jeffery Beckman, spokesman for Levi Strauss. "Usually it's torn off at the store."

Embedded tags aren't so obvious. Hitachi Europe recently developed the world's tiniest RFID integrated circuit, small enough to be placed in a piece of paper. Some RFID chips are made to be imbedded in livestock, in pets and most recently in humans for a variety of reasons.

But use on products has raised the most controversy and claims of eavesdropping on consumers. RFID prices have dropped, and tagging has become practical for businesses. In-Stat, a high-tech research firm, reports more than 1 billion RFID chips were made last year and predicts that by 2010 the number will increase to 33 billion.

Imaginative uses of RFID technology surface daily. A new fitness club wristband from Casio will communicate with gym equipment and display a personalized workout and health data.

At Simon Fraser University, female researchers have developed a purse that reminds the owner of important items not placed inside - sunglasses, wallet, keys and anything deemed indispensable. Each item is RFID-tagged, and the purse lights up with an icon of the forgotten necessity.

Just last week, American Express announced Arby's has joined its national fast-food partners in accepting RFID credit card payment. The RFID credit cards are simply held up next to a "reader" near the register. In mere seconds, you're bearing down on a roast beef sandwich.


Keyless entry
Perhaps you carry a fob and not a car key. The fob automatically turns on the dome light and the door unlocks when you approach the car. A dash button starts the vehicle or maybe you have remote starting, too. The technology that allows this hands-free, keyless stuff is RFID.
In England, RFID tags have been embedded in license plates, making it possible to instantly track a stolen vehicle.

Library books
Old, musty tomes with RFID chips? El Dorado Hills' new library uses RFID tags for quicker check-in and checkout - minus a librarian. The sensor directs check-out and patrons receive a receipt listing the books and return dates.
More college and community libraries are tagging books with RFID, which supposedly frees up time for librarians to help the public.

There's no relief, however, for overdue book fines.

Body implants
Amal Graafstra, who abhors keys, had himself "chipped." RFID chips were implanted in his left and right hands so he could control his car door, front door and log onto his computer by using his hands. His girlfriend, seeking access to his apartment and car, had herself chipped, too.
Graafstra, who lives in Bellingham, Wash., has written a book about home uses of RFID titled, "RFID Toys."

Slightly larger than a grain of rice, RFID chips from VeriChip of Florida are manufactured for implanting in humans. It also makes implant chips for pet identification. The Food and Drug Administration approved human implants two years ago.

Used with a "reader" or scanner, the chips can reveal a person's medical information, a lifesaving benefit for some. They can also be used for high-security clearances. Hoping to improve body-identification procedures, a forensic odontologist has even implanted an RFID chip in a human tooth.

You fly to Barcelona but your bags touch down in Beijing. Last year, 30 million bags came up missing. Swiss-based consulting firm SITA has a recommendation to improve those pathetic numbers - an RFID luggage-tracking system.
The airline industry has mainly relied on a bar-code system, but more airports are expected eventually to convert to RFID. SITA claims radio frequency checks can be made more often, bags can be scanned faster and lost luggage found in a more timely fashion.

If you burn water, there's hope. Vita Craft Corp. of Shawnee, Kan., has introduced Robotic Cookware. An RFID chip in the pan handle "talks" to the "smart" cooking surface and recipe cards. Basically, the cook combines ingredients in the pan and waits for dinner.
"It cooks to perfection, no burning, no scorching," says Vita Craft spokeswoman Angelea Busby.

Already being peddled in Japan for $2,100, the system (three pots, cooking surface and 24 recipe cards) will soon be available in the United States. Bon appétit.

Smart tires are being made that can communicate with a car's operating system and warn drivers of low tire pressure. They also can sense road conditions. The RFID tags are embedded in the sidewalls.
All this information will help companies like Michelin and Goodyear evaluate tire performance and track inventory.

The tags also store information about the tires and the vehicle.

Wristbands, badges and shoelaces
Less intrusive and more colorful than surgical implants, chips in wristbands, badges and even shoelaces are being used to track athletes in marathons and triathlons, lost children in amusement parks, as well as relay medical information from patient to hospital staff.
Brittan Elementary School in Sutter, just west of Yuba City, conducted a short-lived experiment with RFID badges last year. Students wore the badges which recorded their attendance. Some parents and civil liberty groups protested and the experiment was discontinued.

Prescription drugs
Your pill bottle may be RFID tagged, especially if it's Viagra. Six months ago, Pfizer began tagging Viagra to help detect counterfeit pills. "Viagra" is a favorite of online scammers.
Once tagged, pharmacists can scan bottles for authenticity before selling to customers.

Another drug, pain-relieving Oxycontin, has been tracked via RFID because it can be addictive and addicts have unlawfully tried to obtain prescriptions from multiple doctors.

The FDA is encouraging the widespread use of radio frequency identification tags on prescription drugs by next year.

Gaming chips
A full house still beats a straight, but the chips sure have changed. Casinos now can track your bets with RFID-embedded tags in gaming chips.
The chips boost odds that the casino will catch cheats at the tables and those who might be inclined to try cashing in bogus chips. Using hand-held sensors, casinos also can get instant chip counts.

Even when the chips are down, casinos know where to find them.

Credit cards
The no-contact credit card transaction has arrived. Wave the credit card near an RFID reader and the Big Mac is yours. No swiping, no signing.
American Express Blue Card with ExpressPay was first introduced last June. The RFID card is 63 percent faster than cash and 53 percent faster than a traditional credit card, according to American Express research. Elapsed transaction time for the Blue Card averages 12.7 seconds.

The Chase Blink was christened because the light on the sensor blinks when the transaction is recorded. According to Chase, there were 6 million card-carrying blinkers in the United States at the start of the year.

For now, the magnetic strips will remain affixed to these cards to accommodate the old-school style of credit transaction.

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