Radio frequency identification tags: a new technology which could change our lives

By Lieve Van Woensel and Andrés Garcia, University Castilla La Mancha, Spain (guest contributor), with James Tarlton

Radio frequency identification tags

© Andreynikolaev /

The Internet of Things is slated to transform our way of life – while radio frequency identification tags, and other short-range communication devices, are already with us – how might this technology change our way of life?

Radio frequency identification (RFID) technology is replacing barcodes on a massive scale, as a way of tagging consumer goods. In the light of recent food scandals, this could facilitate the traceability of food and beverages in a more efficient and exhaustive way than what is feasible with barcodes.

RFID is also the technology behind the tags that are now common on some clothes, books or other products, easily distinguished thanks to a kind of coil, or piece of foil, that acts as an antenna. With this technology, gates containing the required reader detect products as they pass through. While this is similar to some older anti-theft systems, now it is also possible to identify specific products uniquely for other purposes, such as billing or to consult a product’s characteristics. This is possible because the tag contains an ID number that is longer than those used in barcodes, and is structured in such a way that it can be used to automatically access databases with additional information on the internet.

This capability of the reader to not only identify the product, but also to access a plethora of related information, has given rise to ideas such as smart objects or the Internet of Things (IoT). A smart object is an object that enhances its interaction not only with people but also with other smart objects. The Internet of Things is the integration of physical devices, vehicles, buildings and other items with electronics, software, sensors, actuators and network connectivity that enables these objects to collect and exchange data.

New applications of these ideas are constantly appearing, and research in this area is thriving. RFID tags could be useful throughout the product life cycle, from the gathering of the required parts or raw materials, all along the manufacturing and supply chains, including at the point of sale, and up to the processes of recycling and waste management. This could shorten queues at supermarkets, as all products in the trolley are read instantaneously. Users could also benefit by taking advantage of the capability of the objects themselves to provide access to related information, such as usage instructions, that appliances can automatically access. For example, a bag of food could update the freezer on the required temperature for adequate preservation, or warn it about upcoming expiration dates, or inform the microwave oven about the required cooking temperature and time.

However, the concept of tracking objects raises some concerns. Whereas a smartphone is likely to remain a relatively conspicuous device, the somewhat hidden tag in an object that can mysteriously give access to so much information can be seen as a threat.

Potential impacts and developments

It is important to note that, for reasons of efficiency and price, basic RFID tags used for tracking consumer goods work in the ultra-high frequency (UHF) range and are passive (i.e. do not have batteries). This is noteworthy because it defines the properties and capabilities of the tag. Using UHF means that the reading ranges may be relatively long under certain conditions but, on the other hand, not having batteries means that they are required to use the power coming from the carrier signal provided by the antennas connected to the reader. In addition, UHF is prone to malfunction in the presence of liquids (that absorb the energy) or metals (that reflect the signal creating interference). All of this results in readers being necessarily quite costly and conspicuous (e.g. as a reading arch in a shop) even if tags are not.

Another implication of the requirement for such simple tags (to use very little energy), is that the communication protocols implemented in them are rather basic. This means that they are not secure, as they do not include encryption or any other measures of protection. Further research is currently underway in these areas, but for the moment, it is possible to tamper with the information in several ways (counterfeiting, eavesdropping, cloning, spoofing, jamming etc.).

As well as basic UHF RFID tags, other tags are also very common and even simpler, as is the case for those using near field communication (NFC) technology. NFC uses lower frequencies; meaning tags are only read at very short distances (usually by a hand-held device) and one at a time. The advantage is that they require only a cheap and simple reader. On the other hand, many other types of tags with improved capabilities also exist, as by adding a battery (to make ‘active tags’); they may become sufficiently complex for many different applications. Active tags can include sensors, actuators and a large memory, and make extended communication ranges possible. All of these capabilities again contribute to public concern regarding the applications of this technology.

Anticipatory policy-making

It is important to note that, at present, any small tags hidden in everyday objects are always simple, passive devices; with quite limited capabilities, (versions that are more powerful are usually bigger and far more conspicuous). Therefore, it is always difficult to read a tag, and even more so in the EU, where the power of readers is limited to two watts by law (while four watts are allowed in the USA). This means that reading ranges are usually limited to about two metres. Furthermore, the authorities can easily detect and control the readers, as they work in a similar way to radar. However, it is important to keep in mind that these tags are designed for simple consumer goods. Therefore, even if the possibilities associated with their use are rather broad, it is unlikely that any hypothetical ‘Big Brother’ will use the tags.

On the other hand, there is a real concern on the part of the developers about the safety of this technology when used for certain applications. To begin with, it would be important to ascertain a realistic limit to the power used by the readers, as this creates a serious limitation. While two watts seem to have very little effect on the human body, it is important to take into account that UHF uses the same wavelengths as microwave ovens. Therefore, there is a concern regarding the possibility of ‘hot spots’ appearing in certain locations that may affect biological products. For example, hospitals use UHF RFID tags to track bags of blood, but there does not seem to be any specific research on the effects that the readers may have on the preservation of these products.

There are still many possible improvements around RFID, but the technology is already available, and the possible applications are many. It is true that there is no complete guarantee that the technology is fault-free and tamper-proof, but we cannot compare the simple tags designed to identify consumer goods with the devices that could be used to track a person, such as smartphones. Nevertheless, the use of this interesting technology can certainly help solve the many problems that appear along supply chains, affecting consumers. It may be preferable to accept the remote possibility of the authorities knowing what you are eating, rather than risk food poisoning.

This post is part of a series based on the EPRS publication ‘Ten more technologies which could change our lives‘, which draws attention to ten specific technologies and promotes further reflection about other innovations, in a follow-up to the 2015 ground-breaking publication ‘Ten technologies which could change our lives – potential impacts and policy implications‘. The publications explore the promises and potential negative consequences of these new technologies, and the role that the European Parliament as co-legislator could, and should, play in shaping these developments. The publications feed into the work and priorities of the Science and Technology Options Assessment (STOA) Panel and parliamentary committees.

Tell us what other important technological developments you see that might have a significant impact on the way we live in the future, and that would require European policy-makers’ attention, by leaving a comment below or completing our feedback questionnaire.

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