We've been told for several years that RFID tags would appear everywhere. This is not the case yet, but researchers at the University of Washington would like to know if the future of social networking could be affected by these tags and check the balance between privacy and utility. They've deployed 200 antennas in one UW building and a dozen researchers are carrying RFID tags on them. According to the Seattle Times, all their moves are tracked every second in the building. Of course, it can be practical to know if a colleague is available for a cup of coffee. Still, it has of implications for privacy. As the lead researcher said, 'what we want to understand is what makes it useful, what makes it threatening and how to balance the two.' But read more...
You can see on the left how the RFID Ecosystem can alert users when they have left something behind. (Credit: UW) Here is a link to a larger version of this illustration.
This project has been initiated by Gaetano Borriello, professor of computer science & engineering at UW and a dozen of other researchers. Their large RFID Ecosystem Project "investigates user-centered RFID systems in connection with technology, business, and society" and "one central question in this research is in the balance between privacy and utility."
One of the researchers, graduate student Evan Welbourne, has put a video on YouTube in January 2008. This movie describes various aspects and applications of the project. Here is a direct link to this video (6 minutes and 17 seconds).
On the left, you can see the system architecture behind the UW RFID Ecosystem. (Credit: UW) This diagram has been extracted from a 2007 RFID Ecosystem poster (PDF format, 1 page, 5.43 MB).
Here is how the Seattle Times describes how the project started. "The technology, radio frequency identification, or RFID, is rapidly moving into the real world through a wide variety of applications: Washington state driver's licenses, U.S. passports, clothing, payment cards, car keys and more. The objects all have a tiny tag with a unique number that can be read from a distance. Many experts predict that the radio tags, as an enhanced replacement for bar codes, will soon become ubiquitous. Leaders of the UW's RFID Ecosystem project wanted to understand the implications of that shift before it happens. They're conducting one of the largest experiments using wireless tags in a social setting."
And the article describes the progress of this experiment. "For more than a year, a dozen researchers have carried around RFID tags equipped with tiny computer chips that store an identification number unique to each tag. Researchers installed about 200 antennas throughout the computer-science building that pick up any tag near them every second. The researchers hope to expand the project, funded by the National Science Foundation, to include participation by about 50 volunteers -- people who regularly use the building. Volunteers will have the option of removing their data at any point. The system can show when people leave the office, when they return, how often they take breaks, where they go and who's meeting with whom, Borriello said.
If this technology didn't look enough as a Big Brother way of life, the researchers have developed several applications that take advantage of the infrastructure. "RFIDDER lets people use data from radio tags to inform their social network where they are and what they're doing. The feature can be used on the Web and on a mobile phone, with a connection to the social-networking service Twitter." And "the lab's Personal Digital Diary application detects and logs a person's activities each day and uploads them to a Google calendar. Users can search the calendar to jog their memories about when they last saw someone or how, where and with whom they spent their time."
Read the full Seattle Times article to learn more about the other impacts of such a network on our lives. First, an RFID network of tags has potential privacy pitfalls. And then, it often is not effectively protected from intruders.
If you want to know more about this project, here are some links which will help you.
- "Future of social networking explored in UW's computer science building" (Hannah Hickey, University of Washington News, February 12, 2008)
- A list of projects
- A list of publications
- A list of presentations
- "Challenges for Pervasive RFID-based Infrastructures" (PDF format, 5 pages, 314 KB)
Sources: Kristi Heim, The Seattle Times, March 31, 2008; and various websites
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