RFID: There you are!

RFID technology continues to get people riled, but Brian Haverty is still not quite sure why.
Written by Brian Haverty, Contributor on

commentary -- It was a relief this past month to take part in the RFID World Australia conference and actually hear people talk about the technology without referring to it as "the number of the beast".

Oh sure, there were a few questions from the audience regarding privacy issues. But most presenters were able to field those with what I have always thought as the obvious response: the information you seem to be worried about is already out there.

For the life of me I still can't figure out why people respond to talk of RFID with panicky scenarios about companies figuring out what you bought from the clothing store last week or knowing where you are making your purchases.

If you paid with your credit card at Woolies, anyone who wanted to look could easily connect that itemised receipt of goods to your name. If you've given a detailed background to your mobile phone service provider, it's a simple step connecting that information to your precise current location. That's all possible right now.

At the recent Defcon 13 event in Las Vegas, several records were broken. In one, a US company called Flexilis apparently set the world record for transmitting data to and from a "passive" RFID card over a distance of 69 feet. Is this a worrisome issue, or just a matter of degree that we will deal with as RFID technology matures?

Security commentator Bruce Schneier recently posted this on his Web site: "Whenever you hear a manufacturer talk about a distance limitation for any wireless technology -- wireless LANs, RFID, Bluetooth, anything -- assume he' s wrong. If he's not wrong today, he will be . . ." I think this succinctly shows that, while many would love to paint RFID as a "dangerous" technology, the issues we are dealing with are common to any wireless technology -- or even to networking in general.

No doubt there are plenty of those who will run to the store to buy RFID-defeating products such as Tagzapper and RFID Washer while their unprotected office networks lay open to the world. At the RFID World event though, the atmosphere was much more upbeat. I like a lot of things that the technology will enable us to do, and in listening to the presenters the day I was there, I discovered a great many more.

There's no doubt that RFID is revolutionising manufacturing and the entire supply chain. And the better that gets, the more savings there are to be passed to the consumer (theoretically, of course). Boeing has long been using bar-code systems for part control and maintenance on its aircraft -- RFID will make it quicker and easier to maintain hidden and hard-to-get-to parts.

In one of the event's case studies, Graeme Boardly of Perth's Osborne Park Hospital described an electronic baby security system designed to protect infants from the threat of abduction. Creation of the system was instigated after a nearly successful adbuction at the hospital in 2003.

In the meat and livestock industry, Australia is leading the way in protecting "product integrity" -- obviously a huge boon in these days of disease scares. But being able to trace back products easily is not the only benefit. In the sheep breeding industry, Kevin Atkins has been using RFID to identify sheep in processes designed to increase productivity in wool and meat. And in Australia, where so much of livestock-related produce is for export, these technologies could be keeping an entire country' s economy safe from collapse.

Brian Haverty is Editorial Director of ZDNet Australia. Send your comments to brian.haverty@zdnet.com.au.

This article was first published in Technology & Business magazine.
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