How Does RFID Technology Work? [Technology Explained]

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As a self-confessed tin-hatter and someone who has worked with asset management and inventory controls, I’ve got a lot of interest in RFID technology. Why the tin-hatter bit? I’ll get to that in a few paragraphs. First off, you need to know what RFID is an initialization of – Radio Frequency Identification Tag. The initialization is pronounced ARE-FID.

So what are these things for? Well, they are a way of assigning unique data to whatever they are applied to. Like a barcode or an ISBN number in some ways. The problem with things like bar codes is that they can get damaged or even switched. Some people do that to try to get expensive things cheaper – highly illegal. An RFID tag can be as small as a grain of black pepper and be embedded right into a product’s packaging, or the product itself. So you can start to see some of the benefits here.

Most RFID’s do not have an internal power source, like a battery, but some do. I’m going to cover the ones that don’t, as they are the ones that are most popular.

The RFID technology has two components – the reader and the tag. The reader has two parts – a transceiver and an antenna. The transceiver generates a weak radio signal that may have a range from a few feet to a few yards. The signal is necessary to wake or activate the tag and is transmitted through the antenna. The signal itself is a form of energy that can be used to power the tag.

The transponder is the part of the RFID tag that converts that radio frequency into usable power, as well as sends and receives messages. When the transponder is hit by the radio waves, the waves go up and down the length of the transceiver, oscillating. You might know that when a wire passes through any sort of magnetic or electric field, it can convert and conduct that field down its length. Like those flashlights, where you shake them and a magnet goes back and forth through a copper coil, creating electromotive force.

Now that the RFID has some power to work with, it wakes up the transponder. The transponder immediately upon being woken up, spews out all the information it has stored on it. This whole process can take as little as a few milliseconds. Imagine having friend who was hypnotized to wake up upon hearing a code word, tell you his name and phone number, and then fall immediately back to sleep. Yet he wouldn’t do this no matter what else you said. Funny, yes it is. That’s pretty much what RFID technology does.

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The amount of information that the tag stores can vary. Passive tags, like we’re talking about only store about 1024 bytes of information, or 1 kilobyte. That might not seem like a lot. However, my full name, address, phone number, birthday, social insurance number, place of birth and mother’s maiden name is only 130 bytes of information in plain text. That’s enough information to steal my identity and ruin my life. Now, are you seeing the tin-hatter applications here? Add to that, some people are for implanting these things in your body. Now imagine this RFID technology is embedded in your household items. How hard would it be to hack your own reader and walk around a person or their home and get a full inventory on them? These passive tags have an unspecified lifetime, anticipated to be at least a few decades.

I’m not saying that they are going to be used for nefarious purposes, but the potential is certainly there. Consider that Hitachi can make RFID tags that will hold 128 bits of information, enough for an identification number, like a SIN number, that is small enough to possibly be inhaled. Certainly, it could be put on you, or anything else, without you noticing.

In the picture, all those dots are the Hitachi Powder RFID’sand the black line is a human hair. To me, that’s scary.

What do you think? Do you think RFID’s have their place, or would you rather we just stuck to barcodes and such? Would you allow yourself to be ‘chipped’ with an RFID? Why? Or, why not? Let’s chat it up in the comments, shall we?

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