Frequency Identification (RFID) has become widely used to the extent of having
people carry at least one RFID item even under their skin. It has replaced technologies
such as barcodes and magnetic swipe cards, and this technology has led to many privacy
and security concerns.
What is RFID?
Frequency Identification (or RFID) limited usage started in the military into a
popular technology found in everywhere. It was dated back to World War II, RFID
technology originated when “the British put radio transponders in Allied
aircraft to help early radar system crews detect good guys from bad guys”1. The use of radio frequencies to help in the identification
process was a new idea until patented in 1973 2
It is a device
that is always “off” but ready to be switch on when it receives signal.
RFID tags is a small microchip attached
to an antenna which looks like a sticker. It is about the grain of sand (0.5mm2)
and cost less to develop,
having increasingly commercially and technologically viable”3.
The low manufacturing costs of RFID has led to
the implementation of the technology in a varieties of industrial purposes.
Types of RFID tags
1. Passive tags which derive their power
through electromagnetic means from interrogating reader.
Passive tags are inactive until a reader powers and activate
them through a reader’s interrogation signal. Passive powering is the cheapest,
but it is the shortest range.
Semi-Passive tags which contains batteries on-board that powers their circuitry when they are interrogated. It cannot
initiate communications, but can sense signals. It has longer read range and more
costly because of in built battery.
Active tags can initiate communications unlike other tags. It contains on-board
batteries that power their transmission of signals to the reader
available within range.
RFID systems is categorised by the type of tag and reader. A Passive
Reader Active Tag (PRAT) system has a passive reader which only receives radio
signals from active tags (battery operated, transmit only).
An Active Reader Passive Tag (ARPT) system has an active reader, which
transmits interrogator signals and also receives authentication replies from
An Active Reader Active Tag (ARAT) system utilises active reader to send
signal to awake active tags. A Battery-Assisted Passive (BAP) tag can also acts
like a passive tag with a small battery to power the tag’s return reporting
Fixed readers are set up to create a specific interrogation zone which
can be tightly controlled. This allows a highly defined reading area for when
tags go in and out of the interrogation zone. Mobile readers may be attached to
vehicle or hand-held.
How RFID Works
RFID reader sends high frequency energy with optional encoded
information to the transponder which converts the energy into electrical charge
and then saved. Transponder respond with unique encoded information then reader
gets the information and processes it
Implementations of RFID
There are various applications of RFID in modern society
which primary purpose is to determine if an object is present or not. However, due
to technological advancement, new uses have led to new privacy and security
issues. Some area of the application are discussed below.
Supply Chain Management
The supply-chain management is one of the biggest
implementation of RFID technology widely using tags to complement or replace
bar codes on manufactured products.
Its major advantage over barcodes is that RFID tags can be
individually programmed ensuring one unique identifier per item unlike barcode
which gives one number per product code.
RFID technology is significantly used in financial
transactions, one of the significant possible uses of RFID is to provide a
means of exchanging money without having physical contact with people. Bray put
an estimates that in 2006 there
were “20 million RFID-enabled credit cards and 150,000 vendor readers already
deployed in the U.S.”4.
Another important use of RFID can be seen in the healthcare
industry where it reduces medical misconduct and careless mistakes by tracking
surgical tools to avoid being left on patients, to mark surgical sites to
recognise the procedure required to prevent wrong sided surgery and also
prevent error in drug dispensing.
Another area where RFID technology has boosted productivity
and reduced potential bottlenecks is in automated toll both payment services. Commuters
now carry RFID tags within their vehicle to facilitate automatic billing of
toll without having to queue up for financial transaction.
The usage of RFID in these transactions is with a potential
risk of tracking where individual has travelled. These data can be used against
private individuals i.e Wood writes that “users of this system are leaving a
trail of data behind them… divorce courts have used highway transponder
information to find out where spouses have been traveling”5.
Another application of RFID is livestock tracking. RFID chips are implanted in animals to track
their movement and locate them when they go missing. It can also be used to
study their behaviour. This technology can also be used to track human as used
with animal which has raised privacy concern, for example
Visitors to Alton Towers who purchase the service will
receive an RFID band to wear around their wrist, “marking” them to the
park-wide video-capture system.6
The video surveillance system is a service that captures
visitors adventure in the theme park then packaged and received as a DVD movie.
Another issue of privacy concern of human tracking is the
idea of manufacturer integrating RFID into their products.
Michelin, which manufactures 800,000 tires a day, is going to
insert RFID tags
into its tires. The tag will store a unique number for each tire, a number
that will be associated with the car’s VIN (Vehicle Identification Number).7
This will create a scenario of the vehicle being tracked
without the knowledge of the car owner.
Tracking of people and their location and the tracking of
customers and their habits by retail giants remains the main privacy concerns associated
Tracking of People
RFID chips intended to track human are either implanted or
external tag to be carried
RFID tags are small enough to be hidden under human skin or
with devious intent slipped into their clothing without the person’s knowledge.
governments around the world have been implementing RFID technologies into
passports, citizenship cards, drivers’ licenses, etc.
have been involved in encouraging that people carry certain RFID tag personally,
an example of such is highlighted by Garfinkel who pointed out that “the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority is
giving discounts to residents who pay using EZ-Pass, a transponder system
relying on radio tags”8. This decision is speculated to be biased and
coercive. Another case of governments and RFID implementation is the European
Central Banks exploring placing of RFID tags into the Euro 9. Though the
reason behind the use of RFID in this case was curtail the counterfeiting of
the Euro and not to track citizens and their use of the currency but such implementations
can be manipulated by people with sinister motives.
Peslak describes a scenario where RFID is currently used to
track individuals by a government body:
RFID is already being used to track and coordinate movements
of people between the U.S. and Canada. A program called NEXUS allows U.S. and
Canadian citizens to register their fingerprints, photo, and other personal
data and, if approved, receive a card with an RFID tag. When individuals wish
to travel between the U.S. and Canada, they display their cards near the
governments using RFID in official documentation, the average citizen is
powerless to protect their own personal details and privacy from being
transmitted across the radio frequencies. Many
citizens value their privacy and the United Nations “codified the fundamental
human right of privacy in 1948 within their Universal Declaration of Human
Rights”11. This means that governments
breaching UN’s declaration
is a sign of possible move to control the masses.
Tracking of Customers and their habits
can also be carried out through the goods that people have purchased
maintaining customer database, monitoring
buying habits and other personal data making personal profiling possible.
Peslak, states that “the
privacy concerns of electronic commerce include collection of information
without user’s knowledge, sales of collected personal information, and receipt
of unsolicited information, as in spamming”12. RFID
technology can be implemented with electronic commerce.
RFID in the
retail sector was noted by Hildner:
One breach of privacy through
RFID became known as the Broken Arrow Affair where Wal-Mart along with Proctor
and Gamble used this technology in tracking consumers in the Oklahoma store
when they removed Max Factor Lipfinity lipsticks Once the item was taken from
the shelf a video monitor evaluated how consumers handled the product without
privacy aspect is the decommissioning of the RFID tags used in retail. Peslak
states that “perhaps the most insidious of RFID uses is the potential for
post-sales monitoring… technically; all RFID tags can be permanently read
through active readers”14. There are no mechanism for
deactivating the RFID tags once items are purchased. This may lead to the
situation where the tagged item can be read whenever it near a transceiver
after purchase making subsequent monitoring possible. Peslak further posits:
At present, the tags remain in
a working condition after the items to which they are attached are purchased.
The tags could subsequently be read when they encounter an RFID transceiver.
Thus, if you were to walk into a store with an RFID tagged item, an active
transceiver could activate a signal from the tag and through a series of steps
identify you, your location, and any other information about you such as
criminal history, shopping records, or credit history.15
The risk of
abuse of the RFID tags that lack decommissioning protocols is present though it
is likely to be costly doing national or worldwide tracking system to monitor
RFID tags to individuals.
decommissioning protocols into the RFID tags for instance deactivating or
‘killing’ switch for RFID tags once items enter the retail position. In this
instance, the products would have an RFID tag for the supply-chain management (manufacturing,
warehousing, and delivery) phase of their existence but upon arrival at the
retail store, the tag is deactivated so it can no longer be used.
is the inclusion of an “on–off switch that could allow the consumer to decide
whether or not to use RFID to having their personal information stored when
of privacy solutions in the retail sector include a type of RFID tag developed
by IBM known as the ‘Clipped Tag’. IBM’s
“Clipped Tag” is giving consumers the ability to simply “opt
out” and protect their privacy by tearing or scratching off the RFID
antennae, eliminating the tag’s ability to communicate with other devices or
Another development in RFID
technology is to have RFID tags embedded with a ‘privacy bit’ as stated by Niemelä:
alternative is to set aside a logical bit on the RFID tag. This bit is
initially off when items are in the shop. The bit is flipped to the on position
to deactivate a tag at the point of sale. If RFID readers in shops refrain from
scanning private tags, i.e., those tags whose privacy bit is turned on, then a
good measure of consumer privacy will already be in place. Tags belonging to
consumers in this case will be invisible to shops. At the same time, tags on
items on shelves.16
privacy breaches imposed by not deactivating RFID tags are serious.
Glasser et. al
consequently a fear that one could remotely scan a home, purse or car and then
construct an inventory of everything inside: videos, medications, fine jewellery,
etc. The person scanning could then identify the owner of the items and gain
personal information about him or her. 17
The use of
RFID can easily give away new information about individuals if not properly
protected. Some organisations believe that RFID tags create same threat to
privacy as cell phones, access control badges, credit cards, toll tags and ATM
against potential privacy breaches it is necessary that organisations should be
made to “obtain written consent from an individual before any personally
identifiable information is acquired… obtain written consent before RFID data
is shared with a third party”18.
Nabil et. al
speculates that “privacy laws will continue to change as society evolves and changes” and in the
case of RFID the legislation will not come soon enough19.
Many of the privacy issues related to RFID are compounded by the
addition of the security risks associated with RFID implementations.
the potential RFID security issues a greater understanding of the possible
risks associated with RFID implementations. The main security concerns with
RFID are: the cloning of RFID devices; the tempering of RFID devices; and the
cryptographic means to protect RFID devices.
Cloning RFID devices
greatest developments of RFID technologies over other forms of technology is
due to the ability to assign unique identifiers into every tag, thereby instantly
being able to identify an object or a person. However this feature can be seen
as a potentially major security issue with RFID. The security issue arises out
of the fact that the physical occurrence of an RFID tag does not necessarily
correspond with the authorised user having possession of that tag
The lack of
concern from some organisations is in itself a potential security risk. The
cloning of RFID tags is not imaginary, in fact Roberts describes one system
where the integrity of the RFID tags had been compromised:
cloner was on display at the recent RSA Security Conference in San Francisco,
where he demonstrated for InfoWorld how the device could be used to steal
access codes from HID brand proximity cards, store them, then use the stolen
codes to fool a HID card reader.20
this security risk have been suggested
use of other forms of protection alongside with the physical possession of the
RFID tags, such as PINs or biometric means.
a behavioural monitoring system that
can lock down RFID tags if abuse is detected.
Tampering of data embedded in RFID devices
security risk associated with RFID tags is the ability to manipulate the data
stored on the tags, either by a third party who is cloning the tag or by the
authorised tag holder.
As pointed out by Muir, “RFID
is a wireless technology and is therefore subject to third-party interception
unless the signal is secured”21. This creates a situation whereby
“Man-In-The-Middle” attacks are possible against RFID systems and tags. This
risk is further compounded “if the chip has a writable memory area, as many do,
to data tampering”22. Data tampering occurs when the integrity of the
data stored on the RFID tags is compromised. Generally this type of security
risk is associated with RFID tags that are used in financial transactions, such
as RFID transport cards which store amounts of money on the tag itself rather
than in a centralised database.
One solution to card tampering
is to store the RFID tags out of radio signal range to eliminate the potential
for the signal to be cloned or altered.
This is the most detrimental
security issue with RFID is the type of encryption mechanisms in place within
the RFID systems and tags. This issue is in part due to the constraints in the
RFID chips used in the tags. As stated by Schwartz, “chip limitations make it
difficult to incorporate sophisticated encryption algorithms”23. These
limitations have led to the previous two security issues: the cloning, and
tampering of RFID tags.
One cause of the use of weak
cryptographic mechanisms in the RFID tags has been deduced as poor foresight by
the RFID system designers when initially implementing cryptographic mechanisms.
encryption standards proprietary organisations are not allowing their
cryptosystems to be peer reviewed by cryptographic experts, and therefore the
standards chosen are often easily breakable.
has highlighted that there are many potential privacy and security concerns
facing these systems. For any organisation anticipating implementing a RFID
system they should first recognise the real business need. If personally
identifiable information is not needed to be stored on the RFID tags then it
should not be included as it could present an attractive reason for hackers to
attempt to break into the RFID system.
standards of these systems must be vigorous, and if possible, upgradeable if
the need presents itself. It is unacceptable for any organisation implementing
such an RFID system to rely solely on the concealment of the encryption code to
act as the RFID tags’ only safeguard. Such out-dated thinking will only result
in breaches of security, and probably privacy as well, and be the reason that
the RFID system needs upgrading sooner rather than later. These considerations
need to be made and all associated risks need to be discussed if an
organisation is considering deploying an RFID system, whether it’s for retail
or other purposes.