What is RFID technology and how is it used?

RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) is a form of wireless communication that makes use of the electromagnetic spectrum to uniquely identify an object, animal or person. It is system that is composed of two key parts: tags and readers.

How does the technology work?

The reader is a device that has one or more antennas that emit radio waves and receive signals back from the RFID tag. In the tags, digital data is encoded. The technology uses radio waves to communicate their identity and other information to nearby readers and can be passive or active. Passive RFID tags are powered by the reader and do not have a battery. Active RFID tags are powered by batteries.

Although commercial uses for it were developed in the 1970s, it has become more universally accessible in recent years. With advancements to the technology used to read and store information, it is now more affordable for businesses or consumers to purchase. These devices are generally quite small however they can hold large amounts of data. A tag can be read from up to several feet away and does not need to be within direct line-of-sight of the reader to be tracked, unlike with a bar code. Data stored in an RFID tag can also be updated in real-time. In contrast, bar code data is read-only and cannot be changed.

What are the use cases?

The main use case of RFID tags is mostly in manufacturing, and shipping where the industry relies on object-related tracking, such as containers or packages. However, their use also extends to keeping track of people’s pets when they are ‘micro-chipped’, monitoring animals in agriculture, toll payments on the motorway, and to checking start and finish times for runners in large races. This is to the equivalent of each object having its own unique serial number.

RFID security and privacy

RFID systems are often criticised for having minimal built-in support for security and privacy. This is because RFID tags do not have a lot of compute power, so they are unable to accommodate encryption. As such, it is not inconceivable that someone who is not supposed to access the information on the microchips would be able to, via a man-in-the-middle attack.

Tags can also be read without the user’s knowledge, and if the tag has a unique serial number, it can be associated to a consumer. While a privacy concern for individuals, you can imagine that in medical settings this could be much more concerning.

What about RFID in ePassports?

ePassports do NOT use RFID tags. They use Radio Frequency enabled technology that is much more secure and powerful than RFID. For example, while RFID tags broadcast an unencrypted ID number using radio waves, the smart card chip in your ePassport has sufficient compute power to decode an encrypted token from the passport reader, thus proving the reader is a legitimate source used by border control.

Passport terminals also check for an encrypted data key that is unique to each ePassport to validate the passports themselves at border control. These advanced digital security techniques are not possible using RFID tags.

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