RFID study highlights technology, debate

The RFID debate might be a truly global phenomenon. The handy yet controversial radio frequency ID tag is already in wide release, but efforts to extend its use into human personal functionality have met with fierce resistance in some quarters.

News out of CeBIT is the results of a study by the European Commission, which echoes the pros-and-cons debates that American and Asian experts have been having for several months now. The importance of this latest study is that it was continent-wide and involved surveying hundreds of uses in dozens of industries.

For example, did you know that some airplanes now have RFID tags on their brakes, seats, and lifebelts? It’s true. Every Airbus plane made today has the tiny tags, and industry experts expect other manufacturers to follow suit soon.

That brings to mind the recent use of RFID tags in all the tires used by all the cars in the Daytona 500 auto race. Such tracking kept race officials—and watchers—in the know as to who was where and how far behind and so on.

Transportation is just one use envisioned for the radio tags. You’ve seen the bar-coded stickers on the fruit and vegetables you buy in markets? Those are a primitive form of RFID technology and could easily become visible examples of the power and ease of the technology. Other uses could include merchandise tags on clothes, sporting goods, electronics, and anything else that has a price tag. It’s not too much of a leap from a bar code to an RFID tag.

Officials presenting the results of this European Commission study, however, see an even wider use for the RFID tags.

Viviane Reding, the European Union commissioner who is the brains behind the study, said that the future of RFID usability was in the ability of the technology to network vast amounts of objects and to report their “location” and identity.

Google’s Vint Cerf expanded on that idea by predicting that RFID tags could be used to better police the administration of drugs to hospital patients, taking human error out of the equation altogether.

The mention of anything RFID-related and the word “people,” of course, has many people crying invasion of privacy. Many industry experts have advocated using RFID tags to track personal information and even people themselves, by embedding the tags under a person’s skin. And that is where many people draw the line. They are more than happy to track airplane parts and race cars and even hospital drugs. But use radio tags to “report” on a person’s whereabouts, and a whole host of people get up in arms.

The debate over human use of RFID tags continues. The growth of commercial use of the tags continues, to expand.


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