Every move you make tracked by RFID tags

Every move you make tracked by RFID tags

Summary: 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...

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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...

A UW RFID Ecosystem alert

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).

The UW RFID Ecosystem architecture

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.

Sources: Kristi Heim, The Seattle Times, March 31, 2008; and various websites

You'll find related stories by following the links below.

Topics: Security, Networking, Wi-Fi

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14 comments
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  • ...

    Too Orwellian for my tastes... ]:)
    Linux User 147560
  • RE: Every move you make tracked by RFID tags

    The road to hell is paved with good intentions... and the bodies of the good.

    Absolutely no good will come from tagging everybody and tracking their every move. Conversely, I can imagine all manner of hellish scenarios.
    catseverywhere
  • RE: Every move you make tracked by RFID tags

    Very Orwellian. How long before a satellite can track anyone anywhere at anytime.
    bruce1sa
    • ...

      Do you own a cell phone? How about a GPS device? Any type of technology that utilizes cellular technology?

      If you have any of that stuff (and this includes vehicles with On Star (tm)) then you can be tracked now. The technology is already here. And you all have been sucking it up like kids with a free run on a candy store.

      Just one more reason I don't have a cell phone, or GPS or a vehicle with GPS or On Star(tm) technology. Sure I may sound paranoid, but at least I feel pretty confident that I can't be tracked easily.

      Sometimes the old school way of doing things may be more cumbersome, but it sure does allow for autonomy and some level of security. ]:)
      Linux User 147560
      • GPS, by itself, is OK

        I think you need to understand that RFID tracking requires a two way data communication path between the device being tracked and the data collection system. But GPS is, by design, a one-way, or Receive Only, system. There are NO transmitters routinely built into mobile GPS receivers. This is why GPS can be used by our military to determine their location(s). Their GPS receivers do not radiate any signals that can be tracked by anyone. So a simple GPS receiver, by itself, does not represent a "tracking" hazard.

        However, devices with transmitters built into them definitely do present the tracking hazard you describe. These hazardous devices are more like cell phones and On-Star (tm) because they combine a two-way communication system with GPS reception technology. The GPS portion of the device determines the precise location of the device, while the two-way data communication link transmits the device location back to a central location collection system. Systems like this usually operate without the knowledge (and possibly without the permission) of the person or vehicle being tracked.

        However, if you want a nightmare to worry about, consider the video cameras all over Great Britain, where thousands of outdoor cameras are connected to computers, computers that run character recognition technology designed to "read" vehicle license plate numbers. This system is capable of tracking any vehicle anywhere in Great Britain, without requiring either a GPS receiver or a radio transmitter in or on the vehicle being tracked. This British vehicle tracking system is entirely passive, as far as the tracked vehicle is concerned. However, with it, any vehicle with a license plate can be tracked, particularly in the urban areas of the country.

        But for a more personal nightmare, consider that individual person tracking similar to the British vehicle tracking system has already been tested in the U.S.A. The 2001 Super Bowl had video cameras connected to computers photographing everyone entering the stadium. Here is a link to a Wired article about that experiment.

        http://www.wired.com/politics/law/news/2001/02/41571
        rgetsla
  • RE: Every move you make....

    I know of only one [b]good[/b] use for this - [u]tracking sex predators[/u] after they have been released from prison.

    Other than that, if someone wants me to get 'tagged' they can shove that tag [b]where the sun never shines.[/b]

    Big Brother - are you listening?
    fatman65535
  • RE: Every move you make tracked by RFID tags

    Again, an example of "pure science" investigation that will end up having nightmarish consequences in the real world. There is ALWAYS someone waiting to take this type of technology and use it to curtail freedoms. I hope these researchers still think it's worth it when they realize their work has cost them their own privacy. I'd be interested to know who exactly is funding this research.....
    donscathouse
  • RE: Every move you make tracked by RFID tags

    It's a terrifying concept. The technology is wonderful bu--as with so many other discoveries and inventions--subject to authoritarian abuse and misuse. Were we guaranteed that this method of surveillance would be applied only to benevolent and non-intrusive objectives, I would welcome it. However, my first reaction to this was to remember the tattoo on an old (now deceased) friend's forearm. This "feels" all too familiar in a very dark way. Again, M. Piquepaille, an excellent story with valuable content.
    Naomi Bigelow
    Naomi Bigelow
  • Many people will have no trouble

    coming up with "good" and "reasonable" uses for personal RFID tagging. I had no trouble thinking up a half dozen right off the bat. But the threat to personal privacy, liberty and freedom (well, what little bit is left of them, anyway) presented by any form of universal tagging far outweighs all the possible benefits.

    [i]1,2,3,4, I predict a tech war[/i] - underground RFID masking technology to counter Our Great Benefactor's "We're Protecting Everyone With RFID" program will spring up quickly - masking devices, scramblers, signal disruptors, chaff generators, tag cloners, shields for your Driver's License, Credit Cards, US Citizen ID Card --

    [b]("Remember, Citizens! It's Your Sacred Duty For The Security Of Your Beloved Country To Carry Your ID Card At All Times!")[/b]

    -- all available on the black/gray market with plans on the Web.

    The technology is already in use, I believe. Isn't that how the "Tap-To-Pay" credit cards work?

    <sarcasm> It's Soooo convenient - you just tap your card on the reader at the "McFastFood-In-The-StyroBox King" drive-thru and your pseudo-burger and Croak are paid for. Isn't That Great! </sarcasm>

    It seems to me that it also presents another excellent tool for Identity Theft. Any RFID-implanted card will contain all the desired information in a remotely readable format. Set up a notebook computer with an antenna and an RFID scanner/reader on it at a table in a street-side cafe in some big city and harvest the data of EVERYBODY who walks past. Credit card info, driver's license, Social Security Number, National ID Number, National Lab ID number* - everything. Oh, it's encrypted? Well, that's ok, then. Nobody can ever break something that's encrypted.

    "Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety." - Usually incorrectly attributed to Benjamin Franklin, who published (not wrote) the volume in which this appeared. (http://www.futureofthebook.com/stories/storyReader$605)

    So, if you hadn't gathered, I think it's A Really Truly Bad Idea. (tm) I also expect it to be the reality within my lifetime.

    Off the soap box, now...

    *The one that lets you get into the Weapons areas...
    Lizzie_B
  • As I recall

    the RFID technology was originally developed at Los Alamos National Lab for the purpose of tracking loaded trucks on the Interstates as they went through Ports of Entry - the information on the tag allowed tagged trucks to pass through the port without having to stop, turn in their Tare Sheets and get weighed.

    Appropriately enough, its first application was actually to tag cattle in New Mexico so they could be tracked and rounded up faster.

    I remember reading about it in either the Lab Bulletin or in their magazine in the 80s.
    Lizzie_B
    • RFID Technology Developed in the 1940's

      RFID was actually developed by the RAF as part of the "Identify Friend or Foe" solution for identifying planes (German or British) coming across the english channel.
      kdonahue
      • D'oh!

        Well, duh. I think I need a brain reboot.

        Thanks!
        Lizzie_B
  • RE: Every move you make tracked by RFID tags

    I've been working in the RFID space since the Wal-Mart RFID initiative was announced in 2003. It is important to remember is that deploying an RFID solution/infrastructure can be expensive...and someone has to pay for this. To justify this expense their must be a business case (e.g. tracking cases and pallets of goods through the supply chain, tracking high value assets in an IT or manufacturing environment, security applications, etc.).

    A great deal of hype and mis-information has been propagated about RFID over the past few years, and articles such as this fall into this category. While a variety of technologies could be used as indicated above, I have yet to speak with anyone interested in making the required investment to implement a big-brother people tracking system.

    University environments are great for such research projects, this however is quite different from the real world. The negative PR alone is enough to scare any reputable company aware from such deployment...and I still don't see the business case.
    kdonahue
  • RE: Every move you make tracked by RFID tags

    Allright. So how does this new tag change things? It can be read <a href="http://www.rfidradio.com/?p=25">600 feet</a> away. Does this impact our privacy rights? If so. How?
    Happy face