Radio ID chips to come with kill switch

Manufacturers and a key industry group expect to introduce a disable command for controversial radio frequency identification tags before the chips are shipped in products.

Richard Shim Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Richard Shim
writes about gadgets big and small.
Richard Shim
3 min read

The Auto ID Center, which is helping to develop the radio frequency identification (RFID) specification, said last week that chips incorporating a kill switch are due this summer from manufacturers including Philips Semiconductor, Alien Technology and Matrics.

Philips already has prototypes available, and the chips and will be in full production by the end of the year, according to Dirk Morgenroth, marketing manager for smart labels at Philips. The tags will not be able to be reactivated once they've been disabled, Morgenroth said.

If the tags make it into retail products, consumers will be asked if they want to have identification features disabled when they leave a store, professor Sanjay Sarma, a founder and chairman of research at the Auto ID Center, said in an interview with CNET News.com.

"We have taken privacy seriously for three years, and we've been working to add an opt-in and -out feature to chips," Sarma said.

RFID tags could help to streamline and improve inventory management by allowing manufacturers to more efficiently track the flow of goods. For example, RFID technology could allow a company to add a box of goods to its inventory systems by scanning them all at once, as opposed to having to unpack the box and checking one piece at a time.

But privacy groups have expressed concerns over what the chips could be used for once retail products have left stores.

Earlier this year, Philips said it had sold RFID chips to manufacturers that would be working with clothing company Benetton to add the technology to garments. Privacy groups rose up to express concern over the use of the chips in the garments. The U.S.-based Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering, called for a worldwide boycott of Benetton until the company renounced its involvement with RFID. Benetton later announced it was simply evaluating the use of RFID tags in its inventory management system and was making the announcement because of concern in the financial markets regarding the cost of technology and its benefits.

Sarma said that privacy has always been "one of the fundamental tenants of RFID."

"It might seem that our actions are a knee-jerk reaction to recent privacy concerns, but we have been discussing this for three years," Sarma said.

The disable or kill feature wasn't added to the RFID specification earlier because there wasn't demand for it, according to Morgenroth.

"RFID hadn't reached the retail floor yet. It mostly existed in the back room...This is a new environment, and it has new demands," he said.

Philips is a sponsor of the Auto ID Center.

Adding the kill feature to RFID tags should not add cost to the chips, according to Morgenroth, but it will be an optional feature because the technology could be useful in the home.

For example, garments could tell a washer what settings it needs to be washed under, or foods could tell a microwave how long and at what temperature they need to be cooked.

Momentum has been growing for RFID as retailers look to the technology to reduce costs. Gillette, Wal-Mart and U.K.-based supermarket chain Tesco are working to install specially designed shelves that can read radio frequency waves emitted by microchips embedded in millions of shavers and related products. And in late April, German retail chain Metro announced it will open a "store of the future" that will feature RFID tags for inventory management and a scale that can identify different types of produce.

Intel and German software developer SAP are the principal technology companies behind the Metro pilot. Hewlett-Packard, Cisco Systems and Philips, among others, are also part of the trial.

While the RFID systems will attempt to make shopping more convenient, the trial is largely aimed at showing other retailers how they can cut expenses, an Intel representative said.