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November 6, 2005

IBM promises privacy with retail RFID tag

IBM today will announce their researchers have come up with a new kind of retail RFID tag that promises to give users the power of privacy.

By CBR Staff Writer

Since RFID became part of the retail supply chain, there has been a storm of controversy, particularly in the US, that RFID could be used to indefinitely track the movements of consumer goods. This information could be used to classify consumers for marketing purposes or even to monitor the behavior of the consumer.

Current RFID tags already can be embedded with what’s called a kill command, as specified by the RFID standards body EPCglobal. This deactivates the tag at the point of retail sale, so the device cannot be tracked outside a retail store, for example.

But IBM researchers said there are few main weaknesses to the kill command, including the possibility of a deactivated tag being reactivated. Also, consumers have no way of knowing whether the tag has indeed been reactivated.

IBM’s answer is a so-called clipped tag, which allows consumers to disable the tag mechanically. The tag’s antenna, which enables data stored in the tag’s silicon chip to be read, would be removable by a consumer.

This is quite the departure from current RFID tags, in which the antenna is generally printed onto a thin inlay that becomes part of an adhesive paper tag.

IBM researchers have come up with a few different ways to make clipped tags. One is to make the antenna of scratch-off material, similar to that used in prepaid phone cards or lottery tickets. The RFID tag would be made so that all or part of the antenna is exposed so that a consumer or retail check-out operator could disable the chip by scratching off the antenna.

Another possibility would be a perforated antenna, one that is connected to the tag via a perforated material, similar to the way postage stamps are connected. The user could tear off the antenna using their hands, scissors or with a pull tab.

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Antennas on clipped tags may also appear as a peel-off layer. The antenna would be sandwiched in between a couple of layers of packaging material. When the upper layer is removed, the antenna is effectively destroyed.

In their paper called Clipped Tags, IBM researchers Gunter Karjoth and Paul Moskowitz said fraud protection would be necessary for technology because it would be subject to fraudulent manipulation, as with any labeling technology.

And, of course, they point out that brute force is a current method to disable RFID tags on the market today. Tearing up a tag or applying a high voltage to it would do the trick.

Still, IBM’s approach does promise to help allay mainstream privacy concerns about the retail usage of RFID.

Just how IBM plans to profit from the research was not clear. I don’t think we can really address how we are going to license it, said Ann Breidenbach, director of IBM sensors and actuators group. In the past, the technologies we’ve developed have been for the community, not just internally.

She said the company does not plan to become an RFID tag maker. It may, however, partner with RFID tag makers, she said.

Going forward, IBM would continue to integrate its RFID middleware and services into enterprise applications and vertical markets, Breidenbach said.

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