IBM's Privacy-Friendly RFID Tag Ready For Production - InformationWeek

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IBM's Privacy-Friendly RFID Tag Ready For Production

IBM granted the first manufacturing license for its RFID Clipped Tag, designed to let consumers remove RFID antennas from clothing, prescription drugs, and other items they've just purchased.

IBM thinks it's got an answer to privacy concerns about RFID tags. It's announcing Wednesday the first manufacturing agreement for its Clipped Tag, which was designed with an antenna that's as easy to remove as tearing off a piece of paper.

IBM and its first manufacturing licensee, Marnlen RFID, don't yet have any business customers for the tags, but they're talking to retailers in the U.S., Canada and Europe about pilot tests, says Paul Moskowitz, a scientist with IBM Research and one of the tag's inventors. The idea is to let retail, consumer goods and drug companies tap into the value of RFID while sidestepping privacy concerns. Consumers could remove the antennas once items are purchased. IBM has even done an informational YouTube video on the tag.

RFID tags can be read by up to 30 feet away without a direct scan, creating security risks. Thieves with RFID scanners might lay in wait to rob purchasers of expensive merchandise. Scanners might be used to track the whereabouts of people carrying tagged items.

On the other hand, RFID tags are valuable for retailers. Unlike a bar code scanner, clerks don't have to do a direct scan on an RFID tag; RFID readers can scan up to 1,000 tags at one time. A shopper could go to a checkout counter with 10 pairs of jeans and have them all scanned in an instant. Yet if a clerk destroyed the tag at checkout, all data regarding the item is destroyed, which would complicate processes such as returns.

With the clipped chip (prototype chips for garments are four inches wide and two inches high), a consumer could remove the long-range antenna with one rip. "It's like opening a potato chip bag or a package of ketchup," says Moskowitz. He acknowledges that some consumer education will be required.

But Katherine Albrecht, an outspoken RFID opponent and co-author of the book "Spychips: How Major Corporations And Government Plan To Track Your Every Purchase And Watch Your Every Move," isn't convinced the Clipped Tag will ensure privacy, particularly since item-level tagging would lead to the creation of an infrastructure that captures such finite data. Once that infrastructure is in place, Albrecht says, people would find a way to misuse it. "If you can get the camel's nose in the tent, the rest of the camel is likely to follow," she says.

IBM and other RFID developers face another obstacle: Cost. Although prices on RFID tags are expected to eventually decline, many consider them still too high for item-level tagging.

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