Monday, February 2, 2009

Tag, you're it

RFID (radio frequency identification) tags are scary things -- a threat to our safety and our civil liberties. I've thought so long enough to write two near-future stories about the topic and a related technology overview article.

How many RFID tags move around with you? There may be one in your passport (there is, if you got or renewed your passport recently), your subway farecard, the tollroad E-Zpass transponder on your car's sun visor, your contactless credit card(s), your Exxon Mobil Speedpass key fob -- even your sneakers. That may be only the start. There's talk, from time to time, of putting RFIDs in driver licenses and even currency, ostensibly to make them harder to counterfeit.

And my concern? The whole point of the tags is that they can be read conveniently from a nearby reader device. But what if a slightly improved reader, or a standard reader with a larger antenna, extends the range a bit? Then muggers will be able to see who's carrying lots of cash. Terrorists will be able to pick US tourists out of a crowd from a distance. And any ID (like your passport) that can be read from a distance can be cloned. And that's only the beginning of the danger ....

If you disbelieve that RFID tags announce themselves to eavesdropping readers, watch this video.

(For completeness: "The Day of the RFIDs" first appeared in the anthology Future Washington, October 2005. The story is available from and in my collection Creative Destruction. "The Night of the RFIDs" and "Beyond This Point Be RFIDs" (the related nonfiction piece) appeared in Analog (in the May 2008 and September 2007 issues, respectively.)

Thanks to Scott for the URL to the video.

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