Wednesday, May 25, 2005

RFID: Blink!

JP Morgan Chase & Co. will begin issuing contactless "blink" cards to millions of MasterCard and Visa credit cardholders next month.

A "blink" card looks like a regular credit card, but is embedded with an RFID chip that allows the bearer to wave the card at an RFID-enabled terminal rather than swipe it or hand it to a cashier.

If you already wave cards at toll collection booths and gas station pumps, the "blink" card may be an easy transition for you. I envy you that. I have yet to find anything about RFID that is an easy transition for me.

I'm actually less concerned about the security of "blink" cards than I am about many other RFID applications. The selected interface protocol supports a read range of only a few inches, so any would-be identity pirate would have to be stationed between my hand and the reader in order to steal my information. I'm confident that even if I'm temporarily overwhelmed by the joy of saving ten seconds during checkout, I would notice them there.

Chase's initial plan is to link "blink" cards only to credit card accounts, not debit or bank cards. I don't know if this decision is motivated by consumer interest or Chase's self-interest. Either way, it provides a layer of personal security. If a crafty digital thief does manage to slip in when I'm blinking, they will be plundering my Chase credit card account, not my personal bank account.

The June fleet of "blink" cards is slated for Chase account members in two undisclosed cities. Chase is keeping the undisclosed target cities undisclosed for undisclosed reasons.

I can't help but note that Merriam-Webster defines "blink" as:
1 to look with half-shut eyes
2 to shine dimly or intermittently
3 to look with too little concern

Sally Bacchetta - Freelance Writer

Friday, May 20, 2005

RFID: Organic Electronic Tags

Cost and performance have been formidable hurdles in the path of widespread item-level RFID tagging. Last month a company called OrganicID unfolded some pretty long legs.

At the April 2005 meeting of the Materials Research Society, OrganicID scientists introduced an organic RFID tag that can perform at frequencies of 13.5MHz, which is the desired frequency for supply chain applications. Other organic tags max out at 125 kHz.

Performance? Check.

The price of silicon RFID tags has not dipped below $.20 per tag in spite of a good deal of wailing and gnashing of teeth. Silicon costs what it costs. And it costs too much to tag individual items. Thank goodness.

However, OrganicID's product is estimated to cost only pennies per tag. Pennies.

Cost? Check.

With seed money from ITU Ventures and a strategic partnership with International Paper, OrganicID is bringing the reality of item-level tagging to a whole new level.

Sally Bacchetta - Freelance Writer

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

RFID: California's Identity Information Protection Act

Utah introduced a bill designed to limit the use of RFID by state and county government. It was voted down. Maryland introduced a similar bill. It, too, was voted down. This is California's second RFID bill. The first was... voted down.

So, California's Bill No. 682 may not be an original idea, but it is important and relevant. And the strong bipartisan vote in favor of the bill is also important and relevant.

California Senator Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto) introduced the bill in February 2005. Yesterday the California state senate approved the bill in a 29 to 7 vote (21 Democrats and eight Republicans). If passed into law, the California bill will be the first legislation to limit the use of RFID.

An excerpt from bill 682: "This act would prohibit identification documents created, mandated, purchased or issued by various public entities from containing a contactless integrated circuit or other device that can broadcast personal information or enable personal information to be scanned remotely, except as specified."

Nothing wrong with that.

RFID is amazing technology that represents tremendous positive potential. RFID may be the best tool we have to keep our prescription drug pipeline safe, to alert us when an Alzheimer's patient wanders, or to warn us when our car tire is getting low.

It is not the best tool we have for identification.

New technology requires new vigilance. New uses of old technology also requre new vigilance. If we don't make deliberate decisions about the role of RFID in our lives, someone else will. It is that simple.

Sally Bacchetta - Freelance Writer

Monday, May 16, 2005

RFID: Smart Labels USA 2005

The commercial RFID event of the year, Smart Labels USA 2005, will be held in Baltimore, June 27th-30th.

The agenda includes didactic and interactive workshops covering all aspects of RFID, including manufacture, application, supply chain management, emerging trends, the future of RFID, industry standards, consumer concerns, benefits of RFID technology and maximizing ROI.

A partial list of scheduled speakers features representatives from:
The US Department of Defense
McCarran Airport
Purdue Pharma
Avery Dennison
Dai Nippon Printing
Poly IC

Attendance is expected to exceed that of last year's conference, which included over 400 delegates from 24 countries.

Sally Bacchetta - Freelance Writer

Thursday, May 12, 2005

RFID: Polly Want a Microchip

Digital pirates beware! A UCLA research group is developing an RFID system intended to prevent illegal duplication of digital movies. Rajit Gadh is a UCLA professor and the director of WINMEC (Wireless Internet for the Mobile Enterprise Consortium).

On May 3rd Gadh announced the WINMEC RFID research project as a tool to facilitate digital rights management. The plan is to embed RFID tags in DVDs, and RFID readers in DVD players. Tagged DVDs would only play in RFID-enabled players, and the players would only play tagged DVDs.

Hmm. It's too early to know exactly what WINMEC's project will mean to law-abiding movie enthusiasts, but I do have some questions:

If I decide to fork out the money for a groovy new RFID-enabled DVD player, what am I going to do with all of the non-RFID-enabled movie DVDs I bought to replace all of the non-DVD VHS movie tapes I originally bought?

And if I decide not to buy a groovy new RFID-enabled DVD player, will I still be able to buy non-RFID-tagged DVDs of current movies to play in my non-RFID-enabled DVD player?

And what about my quaint, but decidely un-groovy, non-RFID-enabled small town library? They're going to have to hold a lot of bake sales and car washes to finance two movie collections: one set of groovy new RFID-enabled DVDs and one set of non-RFID-enabled DVDs.

I hope that all of my friends and relatives invest in groovy new RFID-enabled DVD players, otherwise we won't be able to hold movie parties, entertain each other's kids, or borrow each other's movies anymore.

One more thing: WINMEC notes that the groovy new RFID-enabled DVD players would have to link to an online network in order to authenticate the DVDs. The system would first establish the DVD sale as legitimate, and then link the sale with personal identifying information of the specific customer. Every RFID-enabled DVD you purchase will be tracked, linked to you and retained in an electronic history.

The Motion Picture Association of America reports that the U.S. motion picture industry loses more then $3B a year in "potential revenue" because of piracy. In reality, the MPAA doesn't know how much of their "potential revenue" is lost to piracy.

First, because they can't measure "potential"... any projection is one of multiple potentials... that's why it's called "potential".

Second, for the MPAA to know exactly how much of their "potential revenue" is stolen by digital pirates, they would have to have a fairly robust method of tracking pirates and their digital booty. If that were the case, there would be no need for embedded RFID chips in DVDs.

I have tremendous respect for copyright laws. As a freelance writer, I couldn't make a living without them. I get angry at people who steal other people's work by their selfish, unethical, cheap, childish digital piracy. (No matter what you folks tell yourselves, it is stealing.) But, frankly, it's not anyone's business what I watch in the privacy of my own home, as long as I acquire it through legal means.

WINMEC's initiative is like making every middle-aged white male wear an electronic ankle bracelet every day, so that the next time a middle-aged white male commits a crime the police will know the whereabouts of all middle-aged white males. It's a bit of an overreaction, don't you think?

Sally Bacchetta - Freelance Writer

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

RFID: NAVI (Navigation Aid for the Visually Impaired)

Thanks to an engineering professor and a group of students at the University of Rochester, Rochester, New York, RFID may play a significant role in increasing independence for people who are visually impaired or blind.

Jack Mottley, Ph.D., Electrical and Computer Engineering, supervised a student research project to develop NAVI (Navigation Aid for the Visually Impaired). The team successfully designed an RFID prototype that makes it easier for blind and visually impaired people to navigate the corridors and tunnels of the U of R buildings and campus.

Most commercial applications of RFID utilize a fixed reader and mobile, item-level tags or transponders. Mottley's team has reversed positions for their system.

NAVI consists of multiple fixed-position RFID transponders (tags) located throughout the testing hallway, and a hand-held RFID reader (transceiver), which emits low-frequency radio signals. When a reader passes near a transponder, the transponder detects the radio signal and sends back a unique, pre-defined electronic code. Each code activates a different site-specific audio recording, used to orient the NAVI user.

For example, as a NAVI user proceeds through a campus building, periodically passing transponders along the way, they will hear recordings that say, "Elevator is located 20 feet straight ahead", or "Proceed straight ahead ten feet, turn right, stairway directly ahead."

The NAVI system gives blind and visually impaired people the freedom to navigate the campus-- including unfamiliar buildings-- unescorted. That's quite an impact on quality of life!

RFID technology holds considerably more promise than current applications represent. Improvements in read distance and cost will be key to accelerating the adoption of NAVI-type systems on other campuses, museums, hospitals, and other public buildings.

NAVI is an impressive example of the power of RFID to benefit our lives. It is free from the privacy concerns related to commercial applications of RFID. It does not raise any issues of government surveillance, HMO interference or consumer monitoring. It is simply a good thing. Hopefully, it is the first of many.

Sally Bacchetta - Freelance Writer