US university tracks RFID-tagged humans

Students, engineers and staff at the University of Washington (UW) will find out first hand what it means to be tracked by RFID in what UW researchers call "the next step in social networking".

Students, engineers and staff at the University of Washington (UW) will find out first hand what it means to be tracked by RFID in what UW researchers call "the next step in social networking".

In a project called RFID Ecosystem, researchers will give RFID tags to 50 voluntary participants to put on either themselves on their belongings. The location of the tags will be recorded every five seconds, saved to a database and published to Web pages. The tracking, facilitated by 200 antennas, will be constrained to the computer science building within the university.

"Our goal is to ask what benefits can we get out of this technology and how can we protect people's privacy at the same time," UW associate professor Magda Balazinska said in a statement. "We worry that these technologies are being implemented too quickly, and with this system we want to explore it in a controlled environment, to inform the public and policymakers about issues we might face."

Potential benefits of the system will come from two student-developed tools: one records a person's movements in Google Calendar and the other is a "friend finder".

The first tool records people's activities on their Web calendar, such as arrival at work, meetings or lunch breaks.

The second tool sends instant alerts to participants' e-mail or mobile phone when friends are at certain locations. This function, which can be linked to Twitter, can be turned off at any time.

"We want to observe how a group of people uses these tools, whether they find them useful, how they adapt them," Balazinska said.

Each tag costs about 20 cents to produce, according to the university. A specialized reader can scan the card through any non-metal barrier from up to 30 feet away, depending on the type of tag.

"Studies like this inevitably make [RFID people tracking] more likely to be taken up," said former Linux Australia president and technical director of Internet Vision Technologies Jonathan Oxer, who RFID-tagged himself voluntarily to investigate technical and privacy issues.

At first mention, people tagging seems unusual and shocking, said Oxer, but after hearing about it more and more, it loses that edge. Recent research showed that over ten percent of new RFID projects involved people tagging.

"It's a dangerous path to go down," admitted Oxer, who believes that at some point there will be a special case for tagging, such as child molesters, and it will move on from there. When the technology becomes good enough, he said, clandestine tracking efforts will become better. "If the tech is there then people will use it," he said.

On the positive side, Oxer said he would have liked the "friend tracker" tool when he was waiting in Brisbane for a recent flight. "It would be really good to get a snapshot of where my friends are within a 50km radius," he said.

The U.S. National Science Foundation and Microsoft Research are funding part of the project.

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