Quocirca's Straight Talking: Big Brother watching you?

Not yet...

Not yet...

RFID tracking tags have brought about their fair share of outrage from privacy advocates. Quocirca's Clive Longbottom looks at why these fears aren't warranted now – but why they might be in future.

A little while back, Tesco utilised RFID systems to monitor who was picking up Gillette razors and blades in its stores. In the trial, each pack of razors had a simple RFID tag on it that was linked to a localised receiver, which in turn was linked to a webcam that photographed the person picking up the pack.

Whether you want to look at this as a means of market management (let's have a look at who actually buys razors; let's look at who picks them up and puts them back down) or pilferage management (Mach 3 razorblades are a key form of payment for drugs, I am led to believe, due to their value and small size), the trial seems reasonably innocuous.

However, the trial soon became known to some members of the public – and the civil liberties groups. Suddenly, the story took on a life of its own. Tesco was putting RFID tags on items to be able to track people's lives – from the shop to the home and beyond. The sky was falling and Chicken Little was unprepared!

But hang on – these are RFID chips and passive ones at that. They need an RFID reader to be able to pass on any information. Are any of you going to buy a pack of Gillette razorblades that has a suspiciously large block of electronics, a large battery and a transmitter? That's what would be required for Tesco to be able to track you at home.

And would Tesco want to spend the money on a system that cost more than the original goods to do this? Of course not. Why go to all of this trouble when it is far easier for Tesco to give you a loyalty card and track all of your spending in their stores that way?

At the moment, RFID is still in its infancy and even passive tags are relatively expensive. The main usage is in the manufacturing supply chain – tagging pallets of goods, rather than individual goods – and is expanding into high-value individual goods where the cost of RFID can be more easily absorbed.

Still, even if the cost of a passive RFID tag could be brought down to less than one eurocent, the cost of applying this onto a can of 30 eurocents baked beans will rapidly eat up any profit margin on the product – and to what end?

Yes, the supermarket will be able to monitor how goods are selling in the store and fill up shelves in a more economic manner. Possibly the shops could move to a faster check-out system, where the trolley is RFID-scanned for the price of all its contents at once, rather than scanning the bar code on each item individually. Is it worth it at this stage? Probably not.

Where we are seeing great strides in useful RFID technology is in areas such as intelligent packaging.

For example, Swedish company Cypak has created printable inks that can be applied to ordinary cardboard to create full systems attached to RFID systems in the packaging itself. These systems can be used for drugs testing, where it is necessary to know exactly when a pill was pushed through its packaging by the patient, or in parcels, where full knowledge of when a parcel was opened could be useful.

However, even Cypak has had to look at the costs of such systems. Intelligent packaging by itself is of interest, but is not an overwhelming value proposition that it is worth paying a significant premium for.

By minimising componentry (the RFID system is a single, mass-produced component) and utilising existing printing technologies for the circuitry, the cost of RFID-enabling packaging has been kept low. Cypak found the cost of existing RFID readers was prohibitive and so designed its own – coming in at a cost of a few euros, rather than the tens to hundreds from other sources.

Such innovative usage of RFID seems the way to go.

Work from the likes of the University of Berkeley, Intel and BT on RFID 'dust' or 'motes' is also showing longer-term promise. Here, extremely small RFID tags act as miniature low-power transceivers, passing on information as required in the manner of a mesh or grid.

Currently being targeted at the military and civil engineering projects, where in-situ wired networks or formalised wireless networks can have problems, motes may be the means of providing ad-hoc specialised monitoring systems.

As time moves forwards, we could be looking at self-powered motes at the nano-technology range – perhaps powered by solar or piezo technology – making it possible for these sensors to activate only when someone touches or steps on them.

This means the need for expensive RFID readers will be minimised – information will flow across the RFID mesh and be aggregated at fewer RFID reader points. Roads could be covered in Tarmac with motes embedded in it, counting the number of vehicles passing over it and their weights. Homes could use mote-driven temperature sensors to create rooms that self-regulate down to tenths of a degree. Motes will be embedded into the material of items such as the packaging of the goods we buy, the paint on the shelves these items sit on and the lino on the shop's floor.

So this brings us back to the original discussion: RFID is no threat to civil liberties at the moment – unless you happen to want to shoplift from an establishment that is trialling RFID-driven photographic systems. If the cost of RFID comes down to where embedding it into the fabric of the whole environment becomes possible, though, we could run into the possibility where the unscrupulous could link disparate systems together to track the usage of specific items.

At the end of it all, though, do I really care that Tesco finds out what I do with its razors?