Guide for RFID technology

Nowadays, most of the time you'll hear about RFID when it comes to wireless cards. At least in Europe, debit/credit cards have been equipped for some time with this RFID technology, to ensure an easier shopping experience.

Still, this technology has been around for quite some time, and it's being used in a long list of domains - some that you didn't even think of.

Now we're here to discuss all about RFID technology - history, what it actually is, how can you protect from RFID readers and some unusual uses (let's call them that).

RFID technology - Definition

The term RFID is actually an acronym for Radio Frequency IDentification. It means that it identifies something through radio frequencies.

To be able to identify something through this technology, you'd have to use RFID tags. These tags contain the information you want to scan (for example, personal data in a passport or data about a golf ball - to be able to find it when you loose it).

RFID is a technology similar to the bar code ones: the data that's coded into the RFID tags is read by a RFID reader. So in order to use this technology, you have to have a RFID tag and a RFID reader.

The difference between a bar code scanner and a RFID reader is that the RFID tags can be read much more easily and rapidly; you don't need a bulky scanner and a perfect alignment of the bar code.

Let’s not forget that bar codes can be smudged, ripped, making them unusable. For this reason, RFID tags are safer, because they can’ be damaged so easily.

This is why RFID technology is being used in many areas, for quite a long time: stock inventory, identification tags, passports, bank cards and so on. I will give you more examples later in the article.

Still the RFID technology is only a part of a bigger picture. It’s a branch of Automatic Identification and Data Capture group (AIDC). This type of technologies make object identification easy - it automatically collect data about them. And there is no need for a person to enter that data into a computer, because, again, it’s made automatically.

How it’s made?

Unfortunately, we are not at the TV show, but you can imagine what we are going to tell you: three components - an antenna, an RFID tag and a RFID system. This is how an RFID system is made. The antenna is basically integrated in the RFID tag, which is based on a circuit. This tag is placed inside the object that you want to get data from.

For example, the ID tags that employees have are made of plastic; between those layers of plastic.

You need an RFID to read the data, actually to transform the data into a more usable form. Also, you’ll need a software that will help you collect the data and store it in databases.

Types of RFID tags

There are two types of RFID tags:

  1. passive
  2. active

The passive RFID tags are the most used. They are smaller, and, of course, easier to implement that the active ones. They don’t transmit data constantly; you have to “activate” them with and RFID tag in order for them to “give” you the data.

Passive RFID tags come in various types, too.

  • a. Low-Frequency (LF) - used for Access control cards (employees or students) or for animal tagging;
  • b. High-Frequency (HF) - idem above
  • c. Near Field Communication (NFC) - wristbands, badges, name tags and tickets for events or conferences.
  • d. NFC Data Exchange Format (NDEF) - posters or other offline advertising methods that use a tag; when the tag is scanned, it will pull up a specific website.

One thing worth mentioning is that the Near Field Communication is a form of High Frequency RFID tag. It was developed in 2002 to facilitate the communication between cell phones or other devices at close range.

Obviously, NFC is a more advanced RFID type. I’m sure you’ve heard about NFC payments, most of the time, regarding smartphones. The NFC reader can emulate a RFID tag, making it possible to wave a smartphone in front of a terminal and pay for what you bought.

History of RFID technology

Radio frequency technology dates back to the 1800. In 1846 Michael Faraday said that light and radio waves are a form of electromagnetic energy. then James Maxwell presenting his idea about the electromagnetic area, in 1864. Henrich Rudolf Hertz was the one who, in 1887, demonstrated Maxwell's theory. He was the one first to transmit and receive radio waves. Then it was Gugliemo Marconi's turn, in 1896, to demostrate the first radio transmission over the Atlantic (radiotelegraphy).

Arriving to the World Wars. There's a story out there (possible fact, actually), that German airplanes, when they where coming back to the base, they had to rotate in a special way so that they would emit a special radio wave; the air control would then know the planes where not from the allies.

Similar to this was the IFF transponder, which was used by the UK allies to identify aircraft (enemies or not). This was happening in 1939 during the World War II, and it's still happening these days (various powered aircraft) - not to identify friends or foe, though.

Moving a bit forward in the timeline, we'll find the story about a man called Leon Theremin. The times where though - we are talking about 1946. The Soviet Union apparently needed an espionage tool, and Leon was the one who invented it. The tool, even though it didn't have an identification tag, it was named as a predecessor to RFID technology. It was a passive listening device, which was working by retransmitting incident radio waves with audio information.

These were the predecessors of the RFID technology - somehow similar to when you find your maternal or paternal haplogroup when using a DNA test service.

The kind of actual grandfather of the RFID is the patent that Mario Cardullo had (in USA, in 1973). It was a radio transponder (passive, of course), that had a memory. As I presented above, passive RFID tags don't constantly transmit data: they are basically activated by a signal. This transponder worked in this exact way - it needed an interrogating signal in order to transmit data.

Even though Mario Cardullo got his patent in 1973, he actually presented some business ideas in 1969, and demonstrated how the device worked in 1971. The business ideas from 1969 were just like a future prediction:

  • - banking (electronic credit cards or check books);
  • - vehicle routing;
  • - automatic toll system;
  • - electronic license plate;
  • - security such as automatic gates, surveillance, personnel identification);
  • - medical.

Cool, right? We'll see that we are using the RFID technology in exact these domains, even more.

Then the 1990 came with the first UHF reader. It was a development since it was Ultra-High Frequency, it had a range of 20 metres and the data was transmitted faster.

Since then, the RFID technology developed and spread in every domain. Wal-Mart, the big retailer in USA, invested 500.000.000 dollars in the first steps of implementing RFID - tracking products and all. It was the first big company to do so, and the prices they paid where quite big. Of course, it was 2004 and nowadays, implementing RFID is way easier and it's less expensive.

RFID Technology will continue to evolve and be used in many more domains, or even in more branches of the domains its currently used in.

Protect your cards from skimming

I wanted to talk about how to protect yourself regarding RFID, because of cards (credit/debit). What would you do if someone were to steal your card data just by staying besides you? Wireless cards have a RFID tag and if someone wanted to authorise a payment (less than your limit) or to steal your data, they would just have to stay near you and use a RFID reader. The could even create a copy of your card.

The same thing can happen for passports, if they contain such a tag.

Of course, the supposed situation is a fruit of imagination right here, but it doesn't mean it can't happen or that it didn't already. You know the devices used for payments by card in stores? There are videos online where some people proved the level of safety of wireless cards: they input an amount in the device, and they got close to a person wearing its wallet in his pocket; the amount was authorised immediately.

Wireless cards are though quite useful:

  • - quick payments - you don't have to wait that much for a payment;
  • - no use of PIN code for small amounts - compared to classic cards, where you'd have to input your PIN code even for a small amount, wireless cards don't ask for your PIN (there is a limited amount, thought, which you can set with your bank);
  • - the card stays in your hand - classic cards were almost every time taken from your hand by the cashier, in order to introduce them in the device; with the wireless card, you're the one that manages it;
  • - limited amount of spending - in case someone steals your card thinking that they could spend some money without having to know the PIN code, you should know that your wireless card can be limited to a strict number of PIN code-less transactions per day.

We are getting closer to the part regarding RFID protection. As every other thing in the world, wireless cards also have some disadvantages, not only advantages:

  • - quickly stolen data;
  • - PIN code-less payments.

There are cases when the cashier can ask you for the card because you can't reach the device. In this situation, make sure that the card is still visible to you. Why? Because the cashier may actually have another RFID reader there, somewhere where you can't see it, and it could use the device to clone your card, for example. Try to always use your card yourself or be sure to keep an eye on it.

Regarding those useful PIN code-less payments, there is also a disadvantage, which can be described using two examples. The first one is simply the fact that even if you have a limited amount of spending, you will still loose those money in case someone steals your card and shops with it. (Talk to your bank, though; it may be able to help you get your money back).

The second example is when either you have a big limit to your amount, either you have no limit at all. In this situation I'm really hoping you're using an online banking service, with a smartphone app - this can help you get real time info about transactions, helping you notice the disappearance of your card.

In order to protect your card from the above situation, you just need to use an anti-skimming / RFID protection wallet or card holder. This will block any signal, making your cards (or other RFID products) safe again.

Nowadays there is a large number of option regarding RFID protection. Let me give you some examples:

  1. Anti-skimming card holder - this one varies in size and material. It can hold up to 2 cards, or it can be a bigger one, which can hold up to 10 cards. They can be made from plastic, leather, faux-leather, aluminium or It can even have a special pull-out system. The fun thing about this type is that the plastic ones can come in a wide range of colours, and can be slim enough to be put in your wallet.
  2. Anti-skimming wallets - this, too, varies from this big one that you can use even for your passport, to those small ones. The smaller ones can combine the characteristics of a small wallet with those from a card holder. Some have a slider for an easy access to your cards. This option can be the best in case you don’t want to travel with two accessories.

You have to remember that the RFID technology brings a big advantage when It comes to card payments (of course, if you’re using Apple Pay, Google Pay or other similar service, this one can be forgotten). But it can also bring some dangerous stuff, that regarding skimming.

One other thing worth posting out is that some people thing that the anti-skimming wallet can actually demagnetise your card. This is not true, your cards will be safe and they will not become unusable (only if you try to use them while they are in the wallet). The wallet or card holder with RFID protection only block the signal - it’s like a shield for your data.

Where is RFID technology used?

As you’ve seen RFID technology has been around for quite some time. Still, the need for it is increasing, especially because it can be used in so many domains, and making our lives easier.

For example, Wall-Mart was investing since 2004 in a way to track all of it’s products by RFID. Think of how many suppliers Wall-Mart has. Also, it set a starting point, an example for all the other sellers out there.

Nonetheless, besides the wireless cards I wrote about a few paragraphs above, here are other domains in which RFID is highly used:

  • – Asset tracking,
  • – Counterfeit prevention (e.g. in the pharmaceutical industry);
  • – Inventory management;
  • – Personnel tracking;
  • – Supply chain management;
  • – Controlling access to restricted areas;
  • – ID Badging;
  • - Medical;
  • - Animal identification;
  • - Book identification;
  • - Sports (measuring activity related-data about the player);
  • - Access cards such as ski lifts;
  • - Banking;
  • - Passport ( the first e-passport was actually from Malaysia in 1998);
  • - Tolls, roads and transportation.

Almost each one of these domains has its own branches of further usage. For example, in the medical area there are both active and passing RFID tags used for high value or low value items. The FDA even approved the implantation of RFID chips in humans, which could save lives in accidents (all of the patients data will be there). There is also an idea to use the RFID to minimise the mix-up possibility regarding sperm or ovule samples.

Another example is related to transportation. RFID is used for tracking vehicles, traveling by bus/metro/trolley. There are even car sharing service that use this type of technology. And a last one here: bike lockers.

Either way, let me give you some more interesting uses of the RFID technology:

  • a. As I said, libraries are using RFID to keep an inventory of their books (or even more data about them). The Vatican library is one of them - it has implemented RFID tags on more than 2 million manuscripts.
  • b. Some countries use RFID to track garbage. Each household has at least a bin where there's a RFID tag which measures how much waste the family throws each week (or month).
  • c. There is a company that invented the edible RFID tags. Their idea is to facilitate the track of calories and nutritional intake.
  • d. The bee population is threatened. That is why scientists are trying to put on the some RFID tags, in order to track their journey and the population.
  • e. Animals are being tagged not only to track their location, but to track their health.
  • f. Similar to bees, tags are being used on endangered animals, to keep track of their location and health.

With all these being said, now you'll know what RFID technology is and where it is being used.

Also, don't forget about trying to protect your cards and passports, as their information can be stolen quite easily. the best way for this is to use anti-skimming wallets or card holders.

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