Radio frequency identification (RFID) is used to track, identify and record people and objects. First introduced during the 1970s, the technology has evolved as new uses are discovered. But it was Wal-Mart's announcement in summer 2003 that pushed RFID into the spotlight. Now at Wal-Mart, and subsequently Target and Albertson's, RFID is being used to track assets throughout the entire supply chain, helping manage inventory.

RFID has broad usage potential, according to Bill Allen, director of Marketing and Communications, Texas Instruments RFID Systems. Some examples include RFID chips in car keys to protect against theft, RFID tags for livestock, toll road tags such as EZ-Pass, quick checkout cards such as the Mobil SpeedPass and tags made for the shoelaces of marathon runners.

There is one thing that ties all of these RFID solutions together: they all track objects, even if that object is a pallet of goods, a cow or a distance runner.

System set-up

Some common components of RFID technology include readers, scanners and tags, which need to be linked to the main network so the data has a place to go and to come from.

The tags, which each have an antenna, have microchips embedded within and those tags are placed on the items to be tracked. The chips communicate with readers that also house an antenna. The radio waves communicate and transmit data back to the backend system.

The tags can house from 2K to more than 8K worth of information on each one. RFID tags have become cheaper. Smart labels with an RFID chip cost around $0.25 to $0.35, though some can cost more than $5 each, (toll tags, the most expensive, cost about $25 a piece). The low cost ones are used the most.

Allen noted that contractors will be implementing RFID systems since, “all of these data-generating mechanisms ride on the network and are hooked into the backbone.” He said the readers need to be cabled, wired and installed. Though wireless readers exist, Allen said the hardwired ones are, “more popular by far and away.”

Future promise

Some fear proposed uses of RFID. Security is an issue, as the tags could contain or use personal and private information.

Yet, Warren Wilson, analyst for Summit Strategies, said: “I think the privacy issues will definitely have to be addressed over time, but I think there are a lot of settings where they don't come up ... I think that we'll see a rapid proliferation of RFID solutions, even if those [implementations] that affect individuals are somewhat slowed.”

Since the technology is so effective at tracking, it is being used for access control and employee ID badges. RFID tags can also turn credit cards into “smart” cards, making shopping even faster; the card with the embedded RFID chip just needs to be near the reader-no swiping necessary.

Personal security is a question, however, because the information housed in the tag is transmitted over radio frequencies, which can be hacked into, like any other transmission. Not all RFID transmissions are encrypted at this point.

RFID is known as an “invasive technology,” which is causing much debate. Many fear that tags embedded into retail products would allow anyone with a reader to access what someone has bought or owns. Another concern is that RFID tied to personal financial information could be recorded without permission.

While it is feasible for such a privacy breach to occur, it would be unlikely since the information would be pretty irrelevant ... but then again, anything is possible. EC

STONG-MICHAS, a freelance writer, lives in central Pennsylvania. She can be reached at JenLeahS@msn.com.