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The Internet of Things: Radio-Frequency Identification
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The Internet of Things: Radio-Frequency Identification - Executive Leadership Articles

The Internet of Things: Radio-Frequency Identification

Executive Leadership Articles

The Internet of Things: Radio-Frequency Identification

A significant component of the Internet of Things is called RFID, which stands for Radio-Frequency Identification. RFID in some forms has been around for a few decades, but recent years have seen improvements in technology contributing to lowering prices and greater accessibility, which means we are already seeing this technology in use all over the place, although many of us might not know we’re seeing it in action.

RFID: What it is.
At its basic level, RFID works something like this: two hundred cases of bottled water leave the bottling facility. Each case has an RFID tag stuck to it, and each tag has a unique ID number. 200 cases, 200 stickers, 200 unique IDs. As the cases are loaded on the truck, they pass a reader. The sensor is broadcasting a signal, and when the tags pick the signal up, they broadcast their ID numbers. The sensors collect the ID numbers and send them to a computer, which records the data. Because this is happening through the air, the people on the loading dock don’t have to scan each case with an optical barcode reader, and because this information exchange is happening so quickly, multiple IDs can be collected as quickly as the cases can be loaded. Later, the truck will unload at another facility, where other sensors will record each case’s delivery.

What it looks like.
RFID is made of three components: tags, readers, and a computer that will do something with the data collected by the readers. Tags (sometimes called labels) are attached to objects. When those objects come within range of a reader’s signal, the reader accepts data from the tags. The data can simply be an identification number, or it can contain more information, depending on what it’s being used for. You may have seen a postage-stamp-sized sticker (looking like a tiny circuit board) attached to a package from an online retailer, or perhaps stuck to the box of an appliance you purchased at a brick-and-mortar. This is a tag, and that maze-like coil of very thin metal is the antenna part of the tag. The part that looks like a small rectangle, often in the center of the sticker, is the processor, where (among other things) the data is stored.

What it’s good for.
The most inexpensive RFID tags cost less than ten cents, making such uses as inventory control on individual items very cost-effective. Tags are light and tiny, so they can be affixed to almost anything in a non-intrusive way, especially since they don’t have to be within actual sight of a reader. More elaborate tags can record information (such as temperature and humidity) and be re-written as needed. Such tags cost a bit more (up to five or ten dollars each) and may require their own power sources, whereas “passive” RFID tags only need the minimal power they pick up from the readers in order to transmit their data.

RFID is already in use in multiple everyday places. Security guards carry readers with them, so tags can be read at important locations to verify that they have made their rounds at assigned times. Keyless entry systems for vehicles and buildings use RFID, not only to accurately grant access to authorized people, but to keep track of who’s coming into a building and when they’re doing so. Pets have tags embedded beneath their skin so they can be returned to owners if they should ever go astray. Sporting events, such as marathons or fun runs, can accurately track times and locations of thousands of participants at the same time, thanks to tags worn on shoelaces, and their loved ones can track their progress in on websites. Airlines are using RFID for tracking luggage. Toll roads are using it to allow drivers to speed through toll stations without slowing or stopping.

A few concerns.
As always, there are a few drawbacks. The primary concerns remain privacy and security. A search for “RFID” on major online retailers returns hundreds of results, nearly all of them for the purpose of protecting your embedded ID cards and passkeys from unwelcome readers snooping for personal information. If your driver’s license identifies you, and some other card in your wallet has other information about you, it’s possible for unfriendly snoopers to use your data in some harmful way, such as transferring money out of your checking account, or knowing when you’re far from home for extended periods.

On more practical levels, readers are capable of picking up far more information from tags than they need, perhaps even from irrelevant objects. Imagine a very large store with readers all over, collecting data from the same object as it is moved from one end of the back warehouse to the other end of the retail space – far too much info, especially when it’s happening for every item in the store. This data-flooding can be filtered, but this is one example of how the technology solves problems while creating new ones.

Additionally, while data about your purchases or activities may be mostly harmless, your neighbors (or online snoops) don’t really need to know how many TVs you bought this year, or how many deliveries you accepted from specific retailers. This is data you should be allowed to control, and the increased ubiquity of RFID tags in our daily lives makes this a growing concern. Do you know which items you bring into your home are carrying RFID tags, and is this a practical question for us to have to ask ourselves every time we come home from the store, or sign for a shipping delivery? A lot of questions like these need to be considered now.

Embracing the good while preparing for the bad.

RFID has been with us for quite a while, and we’re going to see its use grow enormously as we connect more parts of our lives with other parts of our lives. The Internet of Things promises all kinds of time-saving, money-saving, and perhaps even life-saving data when paired with RFID, and while we can embrace the many changes ahead, we can also prepare for some of their pitfalls.


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The Internet of Things: Radio-Frequency Identification - Executive Leadership Articles

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