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Security firm aims to ease RFID concerns

Researchers at RSA Security develop a blocking technique to alleviate privacy concerns surrounding radio frequency identification.

Researchers at a major security firm have developed a blocking technique to ease privacy concerns surrounding controversial radio frequency identification technology.

The labs at RSA Security on Wednesday outlined plans for a technology they call blocker tags, which are similar in size and cost to radio frequency identification (RFID) tags but disrupt the transmission of information to scanning devices and thwart the collection of data.

The technique, one of few RFID-blocking technologies being worked on by researchers, is still a concept in the labs. But the next step is to develop prototype chips and see if manufacturers are interested in making the processors, according to Ari Juels, a principal research scientist with RSA Laboratories. Blocker and RFID tags are about the size of a grain of sand and cost around 10 cents.

RFID technology uses microchips to wirelessly transmit product serial numbers to a scanner without the need for human intervention. While the technology is potentially useful in improving supply chain management and preventing theft in stores, consumer privacy groups have voiced concerns about possible abuses of the technology if product-tracking tags are allowed to follow people from stores into their homes. Many retailers view RFID as an eventual successor to the bar-code inventory tracking system, because it promises to cut distribution costs for manufacturers and improve retailing margins.

RSA's technique would address the needs of all parties involved, according to Juels. Other options, such as a kill feature embedded in RFID tags, also are available, but with blocker tags, consumers and companies would still be able to use the RFID tags without sacrificing privacy.

"This is not meant to be a hostile tool," Juels said. "It balances consumer privacy and retail use in a profitable way...Tags are too useful to completely disable them."

Retailers have been testing how to use RFID technology in their warehouses to improve inventory management and have dipped their toes into product-level tracking.

Juels said that he foresees a day when tags in clothes can tell washing machines the proper way they need to be washed.

The idea isn't to disable RFID tags, but instead to disrupt the transmission of certain information to scanning devices when consumers want privacy. Blocker tags could be embedded in watches or bags.

Juels said the issue of privacy with regards to RFID technology has been overblown but that there is a need to establish how to best address those concerns before the technology becomes more prevalent.

"If we don't think of it now, it will be more difficult in the future," he said.