How Does RFID Compare To Bar Coding?

There is a sacred realm of privacy for every man and woman where he makes his choices and decisions-a realm of his own essential rights and liberties into which the law, generally speaking, must not intrude.
~ Geoffrey Fisher

What is the difference between RFID and bar coding and how to the compare? This is the topic of today’s conversation and I have some opinions about RFID technology especially as it comes to privacy and the lack of protection in that regards.

But first let’s get an understanding of each different technology out the way.

What is RFID?
RFID stands for Radio Frequency Identification tags. In other words these are like smart bar codes that “talk” to readers that are coupled through a network.

Most commonly you’ve probably seen RFID tags that are about the size of a postage stamp or larger with wires in a square going around the outside, often found in books and libraries. These were some of the forerunners of the current RFID chip and held just a minimal amount of information and were read through electromagnetic readers which also powered them at the time of reading to send the data they contained back to the reader.

Nowadays, RFID tags are much more powerful and being about the size of a grain of rice contain an antenna a battery for self power and a microchip. They also contain exponentially more information.

Active and semi-passive RFID tags that contain their own batteries can broadcast over the 850 MHz to 950 MHz range at distance of about 100 feet or with enhanced batteries up to 300 feet. Passive RFID tags which are powered by the electromagnetic power from the reader can be read over about 20 feet.

Passive tags cost up to 20 cents at the moment with costs coming down all the time. What adds to the cost is the data available on the RFID. How much as well as whether that data is only readable, writeable and readable or writeable once and readable. Obviously the first is the cheapest kind and the second being the most expensive.

Semi-passive tags are priced around $3 up to $10 and specialized active RFID tags can be up to $100 if they are especially robust against radiation and other medical uses.

RFID tags are used similarly to bar codes to track merchandise and logistic supply chain management, but they are also used for tollways, contactless payment, tracking of luggage as well as pets. In fact, your pet might have been fitted with an RFID tag by the vet to help secure them safely without the need for tattoos.

What is a barcode?
A barcode on the other hand stores way less information and is considered Universal Product Code or UPC. Most barcodes that we are familiar with are one dimensional, the thin and thick lines that you’ve come to associate as barcodes give information based on the spacing and thickness of the lines and between the lines of the product it is attached to.

There are however also 2D or 2 dimensional barcodes and a good example of this is the QR codes we have come to associate with our smart phones. A QR or Quick Response code has become popular because it can store way more data than a 1 dimensional barcode. In fact, a QR code can store up to 7,000 characters if numerical only and around 4,000 characters if alpha-numeric which is the alphabet and numbers.

The problem with RFID tags
The problems with RFID tags are many and varied. However, the major concern that I have is with their ubiquitousness and their lack of privacy concerns.

Many RFID tags are being made to withstand years of normal wear and tear and unlike with barcodes, these RFID tags can be read from 20 feet away to a mile or more. This is of great concern. It is one thing to have a company use RFID tags for their own purposes of tracking products and maintaining integrity in their supply chain management, but the RFID chips should be destroyed or killed once you have bought the item in question.

Sadly this is not the case and it has been shown on occasion that these RFID tags are still very much alive and promiscuous with your personal information when being read by cheap RFID readers that anyone can access.

Barcodes are easy to identify and have to read optically as you know within a foot or so. You can also easily identify them and they don’t have the capacity to contain tons of information. This is not the case with RFID tags.

RFID tags are becoming smaller and smaller all the time and although microwaving the product you’ve bought that contains the RFID will destroy it, that is not always best practices or practical the lease of which is fire risk.

Additionally, many RFID tags are becoming so small that they are small enough to escape human detection.

We need to have legislation in place to limit the use of these chips and ways that they can become inactivated once their purpose has been served. I urge you to investigate the privacy issues yourself surrounding RFID tags and start speaking about it and making it known especially to your public officials.

You can read more information about the criticisms with RFID tags at Wikipedia as well as SpyChip. I am not yet wearing my tinfoil hat, but this is definitely a legitimate concern.