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RFID tweaked for item-level tracking

RFID tags will be smaller and cheaper--good news for corporations, but privacy advocates could flinch. Photo: RFID tags get smaller

Radio-frequency identification (RFID) specialist Impinj has devised a way to make it easier for manufacturers and stores to put RFID tags on shirts, CDs and other consumer items, a move that should please corporations but could raise the hackles of privacy advocates.

The company has extended the reach of its GrandPrix RFID product suite with a new set of tags. GrandPrix consists of a reader, RFID tags and software. The tags used in the current GrandPrix suite are designed to go on pallets and crates. The tags--which rely on electromagnetic propagation for communication--can be read about 30 feet away. The antenna's length is about 3.5 inches.

RFID tag

"It is a fairly big thing to put on a tube of toothpaste," said Impinj CEO Bill Colleran.

The new tags for individual products sport smaller antennas and rely on the same processor but use magnetic coupling to communicate. As a result, the tags cost less and are shorter, measuring as small as 9 millimeters. The tag reader can be only about 3 feet away. "You don't want to be ringing up items in the next counter," Colleran said.

Privacy remains a concern with the new tags, he said. Because each tag contains a unique number, the tags essentially can act as serial numbers. The GrandPrix suite, however, is based around the Gen 2 RFID standard and thus can be disabled at the point of sale. Retailers have to merely send an item through a second scan to put the tag on the fritz.

Several consumer advocacy groups have protested the use of RFID tags on individual items and have forced some retailers to curb trials. Many fear that corporations, law enforcement agencies or governments will eventually use the tags to track their movements or purchases. Some critics also have pointed out that one of the chief benefits of RFID--lower operational costs for manufacturers and retailers--is not exactly a cause close to the hearts of many consumers.

But even with the public outcry, item-level tags like this will likely begin to show up in a noticeable way in 2007. The Food and Drug Administration has issued a soft mandate that pharmaceutical manufacturers start placing RFID tags on their products by January 2007 to ensure authenticity.

Florida has passed a law requiring tagging on pharmaceuticals in 2007 as well. California is debating a similar law.

Retailers are interested in adopting the technology and conducting trials. Tagging individual items could cut down on DVD and CD theft. It could also help stocking at clothing retailers; employees with readers could scan shelves to find items stocked in the wrong place, or shirts picked up by consumers in one part of the store and later shoved onto a random shelf.

Building an infrastructure will take time, however. Impinj, cofounded by Caltech professor and tech luminary Carver Mead, designs the chips that go into the tag but doesn't manufacture the chips, tags or antennas. Third parties perform these tasks.