Over the past few years, radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips have become a staple in information storage and protection. Generally used for tracking particular products in a retail environment, for automatic electronic payments, and for animal identification on large farms, RFID technology has been brought to the attention of the public over the past few years due mostly due to their inclusion in electronic passports.
A Short History
The grandfather of RFID technology was actually a spy tool for the Soviet Union. Invented in 1945, the device retransmitted radio waves with audio information. Even though this was a covert listening device and not an identification tag, this spy tool is considered to have paved the way for RFID technology because it was a passive device that was energized and activated by electromagnetic waves from an outside source.
In 1969, inventor Mario Cardullo introduced a radio-frequency device to the New York Pork Authority that was to be used in the transportation sector. Cardullo’s initial business plan showed that the technology could not only be used as an automatic toll system, but also as a security device.
Today, RFID technology is commonplace in the developed world. Because of their micro size, these chips can be embedded into many devices. This technology has particularly helped retailers keep track of products in the shipping and receiving sector. This video shows how:
How RFID Works
Serving the same purpose as a bar code or a magnetic strip on the back of a credit card, RFID chips are information carriers. And just like a credit card must be swiped to gain access to the information it stores, so too must an RFID chip be scanned. The main difference, however, is that unlike a credit card or a bar code, the RFID chip doesn’t need to be in a close proximity to the scanner and requires no contact with another device. Some high-frequency RFID devices can be scanned from a distance of up to 33 feet.
The information on the chip is retrieved via radio frequencies. An antenna puts out radio-frequency signals providing the chip with a means of communication and also the energy to communicate. When an RFID chip passes through the field of the scanning antenna, it detects the activation signal from the antenna. That “wakes up” the RFID chip, and it transmits the information on its microchip to be picked up by the scanning antenna.
RFID and Passports
Electronic passports are gaining popularity all over the world. As of October 2009, over 100 million e-passports had been issued globally.
What makes an electronic passport “electronic” is the RFID chip embedded in the front cover of the passport. The chip contains all the same information that a normal passport would contain – name, date of birth, sex, place of birth, nationality, etc – and this information can be retrieved by border guards or airport attendants with one simple scan thus saving timing and enhancing security at border crossings.
Some RFID chips in e-passports can also contain biometric information – a digital scan of a passenger’s physical characteristics such fingerprints, DNA and irises. In February 2010, London’s Stansted Airport began using these biometric passport gates (read “London Airport Introduces Biometric Scanners”).
In January 2010, Vancouver-based security paper manufacturer Fortress Paper announced a contract that would see the company produce approximately 2,500,000 unites over the net five years (read “Fortress Paper Announces E-passport Contract”), and with over 70 million new e-passports being issued every year, it is estimated that over the next ten years, most of the 750 million passports currently in use will be replaced by electronic passports.