Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags are showing up a lot in the news lately, especially as sources of security risks and privacy invasion. What follows is an introduction to what RFID (or arphids as they are colloquially known) tags are, what they are used for, and what security and privacy risks they present.
Radio Frequency Identification tags are small pieces of semiconductors that have information stored on them. They come in three flavors: passive, semi-passive, and active. Passive arphids possess no active transmitter to broadcast the information they store. However, when exposed to a radio signal, they convert the received radio signal into current and the current powers a transmitter which transmits the information the arphid has stored. Semi-passive arphids have a battery-powered transmitter, but only transmit their data in response to a received signal. Active arphids transmit their data for the life of their batteries and are also known as beacons. Battery life of active arphids can be up to ten years and their range and memory capacity are typically larger than the other types of arphids. Passive arphids are the most common, because they are the least expensive to produce and can be printed on labels in much the same manner as bar-codes.
In function arphids are very similar to the ubiquitous bar-codes we see on products. Both the bar-codes (commonly a UPC code) and arphid tags store data, usually an 8 to 10 digit number. In bar-codes this number can be read by aiming a bar-code scanner at the bar-code. For a bar-code to be read, the printed bar-code must be legible to the reader and the bar-code must pass within less than a foot of the reader. Once the number is read, it is matched up to a list entry which contains a longer identifier associated with the number read from the bar-code. Arphids work much the same way, but because they use radio-frequency energy rather than light, there are fewer constraints on reading the arphid. The arphid makes warehousing and other handling and tracking operations simpler because the arphid can be read from a greater distance and with fewer physical constraints. Additionally, arphids can hold more data than a bar-code, so besides UPC-scanner types of operations, more detailed information about the arphid-labeled product can be returned by the arphid reader.