Simple idea could solve tricky RFID privacy issue

An IBM researcher offers a way to tear off part of the antennae on RFID tags to ease privacy concerns.

Sometimes innovative ideas are really simple. Here's one: an RFID chip with a perforated edge that allows consumers to tear off a part of the antenna after purchasing an item and immediately reduce the distance of the signal, thus easing privacy concerns.

The Clipped Tag label is the brainchild of Paul Moskowitz, an inventor and researcher at IBM.

Ultra-high frequency RFID (radio frequency identification) tags are generally readable at distances up to 30 feet (9 meters), but the Clipped Tag innovation reduces that distance to between 1 and 2 inches. "This means that the tag can only be read if the consumer holds the tag up to a reader," Moskowitz said Wednesday. "It puts choice in the hands of the consumer."

Numerous retailers, including Germany's Metro and Wal-Mart Stores in the U.S., view RFID as a way to manage the huge flow of merchandise in and out of stores more effectively, while at the same time reducing inventory losses and labor costs. But privacy and civil liberties advocacy groups worry that the smart tag technology could create an Orwellian world in which sales clerks or law enforcement officials could remotely read a handbag's contents or track a consumer's whereabouts.

Technology is afoot to deactivate tags permanently, such as the EPCglobal Gen2 "kill" command, but systems like these also have some disadvantages. Data in killed tags can't be retrieved, posing a problem for product recalls or returns.

With Clipped Tag technology, the data remains intact but its remote readability is dramatically reduced.

What does it look like? Imagine a price tag with a small notch, like the one on a bag of potato chips. If you want to turn the long-range RFID chip into a short-range one, tear along the perforated edge and remove a portion of the antenna. It's as simple as that. What's more: "You have a visible indication that you have altered the tag," said Moskowitz.

IBM has tested the commercial adaptability of the Clipped Tag system with Marnlen Management, which manufacturers RFID labels, and Printronix, a producer of printing systems.

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