Thursday, November 03, 2005

An RFID Experience of a Different Kind

Imagine getting an e-mail notice from your company recapping the number of bathroom trips you’ve made and the exact number of minutes you spent on each such trip. How about an e-mail notice that you are spending more time than you should “visiting” in the accounting, or engineering, or any other department for that matter. Sound spooky and overly big brotherish? Read on and discover how this reality may be coming to an employer near you sooner than you might think.

One of the “up and coming” technologies likely to be widely deployed soon is Radio Frequency Identification or RFID tags. As defined at Wikipedia, “Radio Frequency IDentification (RFID) is an automatic identification method, relying on storing and remotely retrieving data using devices called RFID tags or transponders. An RFID tag is a small object that can be attached to or incorporated into a product, animal, or person. RFID tags contain antennas to enable them to receive and respond to radio-frequency queries from an RFID transceiver. Passive tags require no internal power source, whereas active tags require a power source.”

I first became aware of this technology while working for Sony via a Wal-Mart requirement that all inventories from major product suppliers be RFID tagged to facilitate better supply chain management ability. With an RIFD tag on pallets and pieces of inventory, Wal-Mart’s computer system can always know the physical location of the inventory at any point in time. Knowing the physical location of inventory in a distribution warehouse, the back of a storeroom, or staged for set-up in a store, can be a pretty handy feature to have when you are minimizing cost via strict inventory control to assure Wal-Mart’s famous low price positioning.

RFID tagging has lots of other uses too. For instance, it can be used as an automatic way to collect tolls as you zip through the turnstile on Jersey’s Garden State Parkway in your automobile. It can be used as an implant on pets to make sure that their owner’s contact information is readily available should the pet get lost.

RFID technology is also being studied by the US Government as a means of speeding folks through the Passport Control process. Tiny RFID chips embedded into your passport would transmit critical identifying tidbits of information about you enabling one to simply walk through a passport control checkpoint with automated ease. This idea has met with some resistance however as it would also make it possible for unfriendly folks to electronically snoop on a crowd and identify the Americans amongst foreigners via their RFID signatures; so even if you’re not acting the part of the “ugly American” your US Government issued passport could sell you out without any required action on your part.

However, with the exception of the passport issue, none of the above ever gave me pause to think about the possible drawbacks of this wonderful little technology. Being a generally well organized person, the idea of knowing where all that stuff, inventory, pets, or toll tokens resided at all times seemed pretty handy.

The other day though, I had a first hand experience with RFID that made me stop and rethink the power behind this little technology. I was a guest in a building where all visitors and employees carried RFID tags as part of their security-name badges. For the first time I looked at that little security badge as not just a tool designed to enable me access to the building’s rooms and hallways but also as a tool for all my movements to be tracked in real-time. A monitoring service in the building could call up my unique RFID tag and know exactly where I was at a moment’s notice anywhere in the building. What’s more, it could constantly check my whereabouts against a prescribed list of locations I should and shouldn’t be in and against preset time limits for visits to the bathroom, water cooler, etc.

Of course, the practical side of me knows that there has not been any real sense of personal privacy for some time now in this wired world we live in. Most of the time though the convenience it enables is well worth the trade-off in privacy. I also recognize that every company has the right to expect that employees will not loiter where they shouldn’t or enter departments where their business function doesn’t require their presence. To date, the system for enforcing this concept has relied on honest and well intentioned agreements of implied trust (along with physical feedback) between the employer and the employee. With RFID however, the power to track and be tracked is unlike anything yet seen.

The idea of wearing an RFID badge that constantly broadcasts my whereabouts is an entirely different thought to get comfortable with. I asked, “You mean, everywhere I move, I’m tracked like a blip on a radar screen?” “Yep,” replied my host “that’s the “power” of RFID in this application”.

After a while, I found myself taking the badge off and putting it on the table in front of me. Of course, I recognize that as long as I was near the badge, I was still that blip on the radar and I certainly couldn’t go far without needing the badge to open a door or allow me past a security gate, however always thinking about my movements as that radar blip was a bit unsettling.

I suppose as with most technologies, in time, one forgets their worries and goes about their day and maybe even comes to realize the power of the technology when you’re trying to locate someone for yourself for instance. At the moment though it feels too much like the ankle bracelets used to keep track of prisoners while they are on probation or house arrest. Now that doesn’t conjure up the warm and fuzzy type of employer – employee relationship one might dream of does it?

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2 comments:

  1. I didn't realize my security badge enabled my company to track my every move. This is interesting, but how far can things be tracked? I'm curious is this could be used to track your vehicle if it is stolen or your laptop. Where can one find out more?

    Brother Matt

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  2. The answer can be YES to your questions though RFID technology is a near field technology so there needs to be a network of transceivers located near what you want to track. Check out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RFID for more details about RFID. GG

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