RFID: Coming to your products and passports real soon

Like it or not, Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technologies will one day be a part of our everyday lives. From the products we buy off the shelves at the local grocer to the cars we drive to the passports we carry, RFID technology is slowly but surely penetrating many aspects of our business and personal lives.

Symbol's Phil Lazo

Like it or not, Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technologies will one day be a part of our everyday lives. From the products we buy off the shelves at the local grocer to the cars we drive to the passports we carry, RFID technology is slowly but surely penetrating many aspects of our business and personal lives.

As Symbol Technologies Global RFID Group vice president and general manager Phil Lazo (pictured left) tells it, RFID does everything a bar code does, but just better and more efficiently. But in the same breath, Lazo doesn't expect RFID tags (the ID-transmitter that could take the place of those bar codes we see on the side of a package) to supplant bar codes any time soon. Whereas RFID tags cost 20 to 30 cents a piece, bar codes are essentially free. That said, there are other costs associated with using bar codes. For example, compared to the way a door-mounted RFID reader can track a case of toilet paper as it enters the loading dock at Wal-Mart (no human intervention at all), bar code readers general require a human touch to make sure every bar code gets read.

Another problem with bar codes is the number of combinations of bars that can produce unique identifiers. Sure, we can keep generating longer bar codes. But with RFID, the surface area of a box is not a limiting factor in the "depth" of the identifier which, according to Lazo, is a randomly generated 9296-bit number. Provided it was cost effective, Lazo says that 92-bits results in enough combinations to uniquely tag everything on the planet. If only it didn't cost 20 to 30 cents per item. While Lazo doesn't see that price coming down dramatically in the near future, there are certain applications where its either cost effective or simply required (perhaps at any cost). For example, in the latter category, RFID can go a long way towards assuaging the headaches of operating in a regulated industry like the pharmaceutical business. Or, as Lazo describes, to grease the wheels of the biggest supply chain in the world: that of the US Department of Defense.Because of its cost, RFID is truly a trickle down technology.

Yesterday (and still today) tags were applied to whole containers or trucks of product (assets). But, as the cost comes down, RFID is slowly working its way into the those containers. More and more today, RFID tags are turning up on cases of product, and eventually, will probably start to show up on the product itself. As Lazo described it, RFID also has other applications. For example, tracking luggage. But luggage is indeed the perfect example of where RFID systems often have to be bridged to the older legacy systems designed to do the same thing, if not less efficiently so. For example, while the airports in Hong Kong and Las Vegas may track luggage with RFID, what happens once that luggage leaves those airports. Then, the RFID tracking must be joined with the bar-coding system used in other airports. The same goes for retail operations. Today, not every case that comes through the loading dock of your local grocer or Wal-Mart has an RFID tag on it. And so far, RFID is pretty much non-existent at the checkout counter where it could really kick the crap out of Infra-Red scanners (look Ma, no Windex!).

Finally, RFID has been big news recently due to those who are critical of the US government's move to issue RFID-based passports. But Lazo says the strength and randomness of the unique 9296-bit number that's encoded into every RFID tag is enough to neutralize most criticism. To give you an idea, a 9296-bit number is so big (bigger than a billion or a trillion) that neither Lazo nor I know how to pronounce it.  

To hear what Lazo had to say, I caught up with him for a podcast interview. Using the Flash-based player above, you can stream the podcast directly to your desktop, download it, or if you're already subscribed to ZDNet's IT Matters series of podcasts, it should appear automatically on your desktop/notebook or portable audio playback device (depending on how you have your podcatcher configured). For more information on how to tune into ZDNet's podcasts, check our How-To.

Here are some text snippets from the interview: 

Phil Lazo on how he'd describe RFID technology to his grandmother: When there is a palatte of goods that is being received, at the retail store for instance...typically today, you are just counting cases inside the retail store manually or with bar codes. With RFID technology, when it enters the dock door of the retail store, it is automatically read, literally hands-free...because there is a system where readers are installed at the dock door and those readers, as those cases of goods go through the dock door, it's read automatically, you don't have to have a human interface to actually identify the product as it crosses the particular doors. So it gives you instant hands-free visibility of products that are entering that particular facility. 

ZDNet: And the next thing that happens is that it updates your inventory system or something like that?

Lazo: Exactly. And you can use that on the retail shelf. You can install RFID [readers] on the retail shelf, so now, you are taking inventory perpetually on the retail shelf. So consider that one of the biggest problems in retailing today is the out of stock problem, where essentially the retailers don't know whether a product is in the shelf or not, because it's a very manual process today. RFID has the capability of giving you very automated, very hands-free data capture. So you are able to take inventory more seamlessly, more easily, and therefore fill your shelves up quicker. So the impact to retailers are, you get the right product at the right time, in the right place on the retail shelf. And you have a better customer experience...customers are more satisfied, you increase your chance for customers to pick up items on the retail shelf, and therefore for the retailer, your revenues go up.

Phil Lazo on RFID passports and their impact on security and privacy: I think the cloning and some of the articles that have come out about that...the industry generally looks at that as being overblown. We are very conscious of the privacy aspects of it. By the way, you know bar code technology thirty or forty years ago was considered an invasion of privacy as well. And I think that privacy is going to be addressed through the type of standards that we put in place. But also educating consumers on what the technology can do and what it can't do. So, the technology as I said, it's a serial number that's on the tag that means nothing unless you go back to a protected database. It simply means nothing. There is no particular information that's inside the tag that any hacker can download and determine anything about you. 

ZDNet: They can't look at twenty-five Americans and spot where the in those codes, the license plates that you are talking about...the country or the country of citizenship is encoded in that string, they can't spot the commonalities there?

Lazo: They can spot commonalities in the serial numbers, but they won't be able to determine if there is an American or another citizen there.

ZDNet: Why not? What if I had a bunch of Americans standing to the left of me and a bunch of...let's say Japanese people standing to the right of me. And I read all of the passports with my generic, over-the-counter RFID reader of all the Americans and I spotted...couldn't I spot some common thing and say "Hey, that's it, that's the thing that says they're American?"

Lazo: No. Because these are random serial numbers that are assigned here. And if there is ever any data format, those data formats would be protected...