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How RFID Works

by Kevin Bonsor and Candace Keener

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Bonsor, Kevin, and Candace Keener. "How RFID Works" 05 November


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19 February 2011.

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Inside this Article

1. Introduction to How RFID Works


2. Reinventing the Bar Code
3. RFID Tags Past and Present

4. Active, Semi-passive and Passive RFID Tags


5. Talking Tags
6. Government-issued RFIDs
7. See more »
7. Animal and Human Chipping
8. RFID Criticism
9. Lots More Information
10. See all High-Tech Gadgets articles

Electronics Deconstructed Videos

• More Tech Videos »


Electronic Parts Image Gallery

Photo courtesy Getty Images


An RFID tag. See more electronic part pictures.

Long checkout lines at the grocery store are one of the biggest complaints about the
shopping experience. Soon, these lines could disappear when the ubiquitous Universal
Product Code (UPC) bar code is replaced by smart labels, also called radio
frequency identification (RFID) tags. RFID tags are intelligent bar codes that can
talk to a networked system to track every product that you put in your shopping cart.

Imagine going to the grocery store, filling up your cart and walking right out the door.
No longer will you have to wait as someone rings up each item in your cart one at a
time. Instead, these RFID tags will communicate with an electronic reader that will
detect every item in the cart and ring each up almost instantly. The reader will be
connected to a large network that will send information on your products to the
retailer and product manufacturers. Your bank will then be notified and the amount of
the bill will be deducted from your account. No lines, no waiting.

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RFID tags, a technology once limited to tracking cattle, are tracking consumer
products worldwide. Many manufacturers use the tags to track the location of each
product they make from the time it's made until it's pulled off the shelf and tossed in a
shopping cart.

Outside the realm of retail merchandise, RFID tags are tracking vehicles, airline
passengers, Alzheimer's patients and pets. Soon, they may even track your preference
for chunky or creamy peanut butter. Some critics say RFID technology is becoming
too much a part of our lives -- that is, if we're even aware of all the parts of our lives
that it affects.

In this article, you'll learn about the types of RFID tags and how these tags can be
tracked through the entire supply chain. We'll also look at the non-commercial uses of
RFID tags and how the Departments of State and Homeland Security are using them.
Lastly, we'll examine what some critics
consider an Orwellian application of RFID
tags in animals, humans and our society.

Reinventing the Bar


Code
Almost everything that you buy from retailers
has a UPC bar code printed on it. These bar
codes help manufacturers and retailers keep
track of inventory. They also give valuable -
information about the quantity of products
being bought and, to some extent, by whom Barcodes, like this one found on a soda can,
are found on almost everything we buy.
the products are being bought. These codes
serve as product fingerprints made of
machine-readable parallel bars that store binary code.

Created in the early 1970s to speed up the check out process, bar codes have a few
disadvantages:

• In order to keep up with inventories, companies must scan each bar code on
every box of a particular product.
• Going through the checkout line involves the same process of scanning each
bar code on each item.
• Bar code is a read-only technology, meaning that it cannot send out any
information.

RFID tags are an improvement over bar codes because the tags have read and write
capabilities. Data stored on RFID tags can be changed, updated and locked. Some
stores that have begun using RFID tags have found that the technology offers a better
way to track merchandise for stocking and marketing purposes. Through RFID tags,
stores can see how quickly the products leave the shelves and who's buying them.

In addition to retail merchandise, RFID tags have also been added to transportation
devices like highway toll passcards and subway passes. Because of their ability to
store data so efficiently, RFID tags can tabulate the cost of tolls and fares and deduct
the cost electronically from the amount of money that the user places on the card.
Rather than waiting to pay a toll at a tollbooth or shelling out coins at a token counter,
passengers use RFID chip-embedded passes like debit cards.

But would you entrust your medical history to an RFID tag? How about your home
address or your baby's safety? Let's look at two types of RFID tags and how they store
and transmit data before we move past grocery store purchases to human lives.

Bar Code History


At 8:01 a.m. on June 26, 1974, a customer at Marsh's supermarket in
Troy, OH, made the first purchase of a product with a barcode, a 10-pack
of Wrigley's Juicy Fruit Gum. This began a new era in retail that sped up
checkout lines and gave companies a more efficient method for inventory
control. That pack of gum took its place in American history and is
currently on display at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of
American History. That historical purchase was the culmination of nearly
30 years of research and development. The first system for automatic
product coding was patented by Bernard Silver and Norman Woodland,
both graduate students at the Drexel Institute of Technology (now Drexel
University). They used a pattern of ink that glowed under ultraviolet light.
This system was too expensive and the ink wasn't very stable. The system
we use today was unveiled by IBM in 1973 and uses readers designed by
NCR.

RFID Tags Past and Present


RFID technology has been around since 1970, but until recently, it has been too
expensive to use on a large scale. Originally, RFID tags were used to track large
items, like cows, railroad cars and airline luggage, that were shipped over long
distances, These original tags, called inductively coupled RFID tags, were complex
systems of metal coils, antennae and glass.

Inductively coupled RFID tags were powered by a


magnetic field generated by the RFID reader.
Electrical current has an electrical component and a
magnetic component -- it is electromagnetic.
Because of this, you can create a magnetic field with
electricity, and you can create electrical current with
a magnetic field. The name "inductively coupled"
comes from this process -- the magnetic field inducts
a current in the wire. You can learn more in How
Electromagnets Work.

Capacitively coupled tags


Photo courtesy Getty Images
This RFID tag from Texas
were created next in an attempt to lower the Instruments dates back to 1999,
technology's cost. These were meant to be disposable when it was used to track luggage.
tags that could be applied to less expensive
merchandise and made as universal as bar codes.
Capacitively coupled tags used conductive carbon ink instead of metal coils to
transmit data. The ink was printed on paper labels and scanned by readers.
Motorola's BiStatix RFID tags were the frontrunners in this technology. They used
a silicon chip that was only 3mm wide and stored 96 bits of information. This
technology didn't catch on with retailers, and BiStatix was shut down in 2001 [source:
RFID Journal].

Newer innovations in the RFID industry include active, semi-active, and passive
RFID tags. These tags can store up to 2 kilobytes of data and are composed of a
microchip, antenna, and, in the case of active and semi-passive tags, a battery. The
tag's components are enclosed within plastic, silicon or sometimes glass.

At a basic level, each tag works in the same way:

• Data stored within an RFID tag's microchip waits to be read.


• The tag's antenna receives electromagnetic energy from an RFID reader's
antenna.
• Using power from its internal battery or power harvested from the reader's
electromagnetic field, the tag sends radio waves back to the reader.
• The reader picks up the tag's radio waves and interprets the frequencies as
meaningful data.

Inductively coupled and capacitively coupled RFID tags aren't used as commonly
today because they are expensive and bulky. In the next section, we'll learn more
about active, semi-passive and passive RFID tags.

Active, Semi-passive and Passive RFID


Tags
Active, semi-passive and passive RFID tags are making RFID technology more
accessible and prominent in our world. These tags are less expensive to produce, and
they can be made small enough to fit on almost any product.

Active and semi-passive RFID tags use internal batteries to power their circuits. An
active tag also uses its battery to broadcast radio waves to a reader, whereas a semi-
passive tag relies on the reader to supply its power for broadcasting. Because these
tags contain more hardware than passive RFID tags, they are more expensive. Active
and semi-passive tags are reserved for costly items that are read over greater distances
-- they broadcast high frequencies from 850 to 950 MHz that can be read 100 feet or
more away. If it is necessary to read the tags from even farther away, additional
batteries can boost a tag's range to over 300 feet (100 meters) [source: RFID Journal].

Passive RFID tags rely entirely on the reader as their power source. These tags are
read up to 20 feet away, and they have lower production costs, meaning that they can
be applied to less expensive merchandise. These tags are manufactured to be
disposable, along with the disposable consumer goods on which they are placed.
Whereas a railway car would have an active RFID tag, a bottle of shampoo would
have a passive tag.
Another factor that influences the cost of RFID tags is data storage. There are three
storage types: read-write, read-only and WORM (write once, read many). A read-
write tag's data can be added to or overwritten. Read-only tags cannot be added to or
overwritten -- they contain only the data that is stored in them when they were made.
WORM tags can have additional data (like another serial number) added once, but
they cannot be overwritten.

Most passive RFID tags cost between 7 and 20 cents


each [source: RFID Journal]. Active and semi-
passive tags are more expensive, and RFID
manufacturers typically do not quote prices for these
tags without first determining their range, storage
type and quantity. The RFID industry's goal is to get
the cost of a passive RFID tag down to 5 cents each Photo courtesy Getty Images
once more merchandisers adopt it. This tiny RFID tag will be placed
on a bottle of moisturizer.
In the next section, we'll learn how this technology
could be used to create a global system of RFID tags that link to the Internet.

VIDEO: Check out these videos of cell phones and 9 innovative gadget videos.>>

Talking Tags
When the RFID industry is able to lower the price of tags, it will lead to a ubiquitous
network of smart packages that track every phase of the supply chain. Store shelves
will be full of smart-labeled products that can be tracked from purchase to trash can.
The shelves themselves will communicate wirelessly with the network. The tags will
be just one component of this large product-tracking network.
The other two pieces to this network will be the readers that communicate with the
tags and the Internet, which will provide communications lines for the network.

Let's look at a real-world scenario of this system:

• At the grocery store, you buy a carton of milk. The milk containers will have
an RFID tag that stores the milk's expiration date and price. When you lift the
milk from the shelf, the shelf may display the milk's specific expiration date,
or the information could be wirelessly sent to your personal digital assistant or
cell phone.
• As you exit the store, you pass through doors with an embedded tag reader.
This reader tabulates the cost of all the items in your shopping cart and sends
the grocery bill to your bank, which deducts the amount from your account.
Product manufacturers know that you've bought their product, and the store's
computers know exactly how many of each product need to be reordered.
• Once you get home, you put your milk in the refrigerator, which is also
equipped with a tag reader. This smart refrigerator is capable of tracking all of
the groceries stored in it. It can track the foods you use, how often you restock
your refrigerator and can let you know when that milk and other foods spoil.
• Products are also tracked when they are thrown into a trash can or recycle bin.
At this point, your refrigerator could add milk to your grocery list, or you
could program the fridge to order these items automatically.
• Based on the products you buy, your grocery store gets to know your unique
preferences. Instead of receiving generic newsletters with weekly grocery
specials, you might receive one created just for you. If you have two school-
age children and a puppy, your grocery store can use customer-specific
marketing by sending you coupons for items like juice boxes and dog food.

In order for this system to work, each product will be given a unique product number.
MIT's Auto-ID Center is working on an Electronic Product Code (EPC) identifier
that could replace the UPC. Every smart label could contain 96 bits of information,
including the product manufacturer, product name and a 40-bit serial number. Using
this system, a smart label would communicate with a network called the Object
Naming Service. This database would retrieve information about a product and then
direct information to the manufacturer's computers.

The information stored on the smart labels would be written in a Product Markup
Language (PML), which is based on the eXtensible Markup Language (XML).
PML would allow all computers to communicate with any computer system similar to
the way that Web servers read Hyper Text Markup Language (HTML), the common
language used to create Web pages.

We're not at this point yet, but RFID tags are more prominent in your life than you
may realize. Wal-Mart and Best Buy are just two major merchandisers that use RFID
tags for stocking and marketing purposes.

Some critics find the idea of merchandisers tracking and recording purchases to be
alarming. But retail isn't the only industry using RFID technology. In the next section,
we'll learn how the government is putting RFID tags to use.

Government-issued RFIDs
REAL ID
From air traffic to road traffic, security is becoming a more pressing issue, and some people feel that
they're being monitored more closely than ever before. REAL ID, a program developed by the 9/11
Commission, is intended to improve the way that official identification is issued. While the REAL ID
has yet to be approved (and is being heatedly debated), the first proposed REAL ID is the REAL ID
driver's license. DHS issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for the REAL ID driver's license on
March 1, 2007. The REAL ID driver's license can be enhanced to give you easy border-crossing access
to Canada, and beyond a standard driver's license, it also grants you access to federal facilities, federal
aircraft and nuclear power plants [source: Department of Homeland Security]. States will choose
whether or not to embed RFID chips in the REAL ID driver's license in place of the current 2-D bar
code.
While many consumers happily -- or obliviously -- buy merchandise tracked with
RFID tags, some people are up in arms about the federal government's legislation
mandating that passports be embedded with RFID microchips.

On Aug. 14, 2006, the Department of State began issuing electronic passports, or e-
passports. Prompted by the terrorist attacks of Sept.11, 2001 the Department of
Homeland Security (DHS) proposed the e-passport as a security measure for air
travel safety, border security and more efficient customs procedures at airports. The e-
passport's enhanced security features -- a chip identification number, digital signature
and photograph that acts as a biometric identifier -- make the passport impossible to
forge.

The e-passport will help improve security, but with so much personal information
embedded in the document, there have been many concerns raised about the e-
passport's potential for identity theft. Two possible forms of identity theft that could
occur with e-passports are:

• Skimming happens when someone uses an RFID reader to scan data from an
RFID chip without the e-passport holder's knowledge.
• Eavesdropping happens when someone reads the frequencies emitted from
the RFID chip as it is scanned by an official reader.

However, the DHS insists that the e-passport is perfectly safe to use and that proper
precautions have been taken to ensure user confidentiality.

• For protection against skimming, the e-passport contains a metallic anti-


skimming device. This device is a radio shield inserted between the passport's
cover and first page. When the e-passport is closed, it can't be scanned at all;
when it's open, it can only be read by a scanner that is less than 10 centimeters
away [source: Department of State].
• To guard against eavesdropping, DHS has
mandated that all areas where the e-passport
is scanned be thoroughly covered and
enclosed so that signals cannot be picked up
beyond the authorized RFID reader.

The e-passport costs $97. While the cost to you may


seem steep, the cost of installing RFID readers in
airports is even more staggering. Adopting the e- Photo courtesy Getty Images
passport will require gradual change, but authorities The Australian passport served as
a model for the new United States
are already discussing what added security features e-passport.
and improved biometrics the next series of e-
passports will have.

The debate over e-passports pales in comparison to debates over human chipping.
Next, we'll learn what RFID microchips are doing in living things.

RFID Criticism
George Orwell's "1984"
"1984" tells the story of a society in which all citizens are patrolled by the Thought Police, who ensure
that no one has any independent or rebellious thoughts that aren't sanctioned by the Party. In this
society, everyone answers to Big Brother -- the ultimate authority on education, government and
recreation. When critics of RFID call the technology "Orwellian," they mean that the technology is too
invasive and that businesses and government are made too knowledgeable of our private actions, just
like Big Brother watching us.

As with many new technologies, people fear what they don't understand. In the case
of RFID, consumers have many fears, some of which may be justified. This debate
may be one of the few in which you'll find the American Civil Liberties Union and
Christian Coalition on the same side.

Human chipping has seemingly higher stakes than merchandise tagging, and RFID
critics are concerned that human chipping may one day become mandatory. When the
company CityWatcher.com chipped two of its employees in 2006, these fears spun
out of control. CityWatcher.com insisted that the employees were not forced to be
chipped -- they volunteered for the microchip implants for easier access to secured
vaults where confidential documents are stored. Other employees declined the
implants, and their positions with the company were unaffected.

Mandatory Human Chipping


In October 2007, California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill making it unlawful for any
employer to force an employee to be chipped. California is also working to ban RFID chips in REAL ID
drivers' licenses [source: RFID Journal].

Aside from the limitations of VeriChip scanning discussed in the last section, human
chipping has profound religious and civil liberty implications for some people. Some
believe that human chipping is foretelling a biblical prophecy from the Book of
Revelation, interpreting the chip as the "Mark of the Beast." To others concerned with
civil liberties, the chip is bringing us one step closer to an Orwellian society, in which
our every action and thought will be controlled by Big Brother.

While we can choose whether or not to put RFID chips in ourselves or our pets, we
have little control over tags being placed on commercial products that we buy. In the
book "Spychips: How Major Corporations and Government Plan to Track Your Every
Move with RFID," Katherine Albrecht and Liz McIntyre describe the most extreme
implications of RFID tags. They describe how RFID tags could be used to gauge your
spending habits and bank account to determine how much you should be charged for
the products you buy. This may sound paranoid, but hackers have proven that some
RFID tags can be tampered with, including disabling their anti-theft features and
changing the price that corresponds to their product. Better encryption is needed to
ensure that hackers can't pick up RFID frequencies with super-sensitive antennae.

What's more, some critics say that relying on RFID as the primary means of security
could make human security checkpoints lazy and ineffective. If security guards rely
solely on the RFID anti-theft devices in merchandise and RFID technology of
government-issued identification to screen for criminals or terrorists, they might miss
the criminal activity happening right in front of their eyes.
For lots more information about RFID technology, check out the links on the next
page.

UPC codes were first used in grocery stores.

If you go look in your refrigerator or pantry right now, you will find that just about
every package you see has a UPC bar code printed on it. In fact, nearly every item
that you purchase from a grocery store, department store and mass merchandiser has a
UPC bar code on it somewhere.

Have you ever wondered where these codes come from and what they mean? In this
article, we will solve this mystery so that you can decode any UPC code you come
across.

"UPC" stands for Universal Product Code. UPC bar codes were originally created to
help grocery stores speed up the checkout process and keep better track of inventory,
but the system quickly spread to all other retail products because it was so successful.

UPCs originate with a company called the Uniform Code Council (UCC). A
manufacturer applies to the UCC for permission to enter the UPC system. The
manufacturer pays an annual fee for the privilege. In return, the UCC issues the
manufacturer a six-digit manufacturer identification number and provides
guidelines on how to use it. You can see the manufacturer identification number in
any standard 12-digit UPC code. The UPC symbol has two parts:

• The machine-readable bar code


• The human-readable 12-digit UPC number

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The manufacturer identification number is the first six digits of the UPC number --
639382 in the image above. The next five digits -- 00039 -- are the item number. A
person employed by the manufacturer, called the UPC coordinator, is responsible for
assigning item numbers to products, making sure the same code is not used on more
than one product, retiring codes as products are removed from the product line, etc.

In general, every item the manufacturer sells, as well as every size package and every
repackaging of the item, needs a different item code. So a 12-ounce can of Coke
needs a different item number than a 16-ounce bottle of Coke, as does a 6-pack of 12-
ounce cans, a 12-pack, a 24-can case, and so on. It is the job of the UPC coordinator
to keep all of these numbers straight!

The last digit of the UPC code is called a check digit. This digit lets the scanner
determine if it scanned the number correctly or not. Here is how the check digit is
calculated for the other 11 digits, using the code 63938200039 from "The Teenager's
Guide to the Real World" example shown above:

1. Add together the value of all of the digits in odd positions (digits 1, 3, 5, 7, 9
and 11).
6 + 9 + 8 + 0 + 0 + 9 = 32
2. Multiply that number by 3.
32 * 3 = 96
3. Add together the value of all of the digits in even positions (digits 2, 4, 6, 8
and 10).
3 + 3 + 2 + 0 + 3 = 11
4. Add this sum to the value in step 2.
96 + 11 = 107
5. Take the number in Step 4. To create the check digit, determine the number
that, when added to the number in step 4, is a multiple of 10.
107 + 3 = 110

The check digit is therefore 3.

Each time the scanner scans an item, it performs this calculation. If the check digit it
calculates is different from the check digit it reads, the scanner knows that something
went wrong and the item needs to be rescanned.

How is the Price Determined?


As you can see, there is no price information encoded in a bar code. When the scanner
at the checkout line scans a product, the cash register sends the UPC number to the
store's central POS (point of sale) computer to look up the UPC number. The central
computer sends back the actual price of the item at that moment.

This approach allows the store to change the price whenever it wants, for example to
reflect sale prices. If the price were encoded in the bar code, prices could never
change. On the other hand, not encoding a fixed price gives the store an easy way to
rip off customers. When you hear about "scanner fraud" in the news, that is what the
newsperson is talking about. It is incredibly easy for a store to mistakenly or
purposefully overprice an item.

One thing you will notice if you start looking at UPC codes in detail is that the big
manufactures have manufacturer IDs with lots of zeros in them. Here are a few:

• Post - 043000
• General Mills - 016000
• Del Monte - 024000
• Quaker Oats - 030000

Here is the bar code from a 3-liter bottle of Diet Coke:

You can see that Coke's manufacturer ID is 049000. However, if you look at can of
Coke or most 2-liter bottles, you will find that the UPC code is much shorter -- only
eight digits total. Here's the bar code from a 2-liter bottle of Sprite:
These short bar codes are called zero-suppressed numbers. There's a set of rules
around forming zero-suppressed numbers from full numbers, but the basic idea is to
leave out a set of four digits, all zeros. In the case of the Sprite UPC code, the 049 at
the beginning is the first three digits of Coke's 049000 manufacturer ID. The 551 is
the item number for this bottle of Sprite, shortened from 00551. The zero in the
second-to-last digit is the fourth digit from Coke's manufacturer ID. The final digit is
the normal check digit. The main reason for having zero-suppressed numbers is to
create smaller bar codes for small product packages like 12-ounce cans.

The first digit of the manufacturer's identification number is special. It is called the
number system character. The following table shows you what different number
system characters mean:

Standard UPC number


0 (must have a zero to do zero-suppressed numbers)

1 Reserved
Random-weight items
2 (fruits, vegetables, meats, etc.)

3 Pharmaceuticals
In-store marking for retailers
4 (A store can set up its own codes, but no other store will
understand them.)

5 Coupons

6 Standard UPC number

7 Standard UPC number

8 Reserved
9 Reserved

Here is an example of a pharmaceutical bar code (number system character 3), this
one from a 4-ounce bottle of Selsun Blue dandruff shampoo:

Here is an example of in-store marking (number system character 4), in this case from
a $10 Toys R Us gift certificate:

Since Toys R Us is the only store that will ever use this bar code -- it's the only place
where the gift certificate can be redeemed -- Toys R Us made up its own UPC code
for the gift certificate and used number system 4 so it could do that.

Can I Decode the Bars?


So let's say you would like to decode the actual bars in the bar code and map them to
numbers. This is something that will make you cross-eyed, but it can be done.

First of all, look at any 12-digit bar code. It is made up of black bars and white spaces
between the bars. Assume that the thinnest bar or space that you see (for example, the
first bar on the left) can be called "one unit wide." The bars and spaces can therefore
be seen to have proportional widths of one, two, three or four units. If you look at any
bar code you can see examples of these four widths.

The start of any bar code is "1-1-1." That is, starting at the left you find a one-unit-
wide black bar followed by a one-unit-wide white space followed by a one-unit-wide
black bar (bar-space-bar). Following the start code, the digits are encoded like this:

0 = 3-2-1-1
1 = 2-2-2-1
2 = 2-1-2-2
3 = 1-4-1-1
4 = 1-1-3-2
5 = 1-2-3-1
6 = 1-1-1-4
7 = 1-3-1-2
8 = 1-2-1-3
9 = 3-1-1-2

(Something to notice: All of these encodings seem to add up to 7.)

So let's take this barcode as an example:

The code embedded in the bars is 043000181706:

• The bar code starts with the standard start code of 1-1-1 (bar-space-bar).
• The zero is 3-2-1-1 (space-bar-space-bar).
• The four is 1-1-3-2 (space-bar-space-bar).
• The three is 1-4-1-1 (space-bar-space-bar).
• The next three zeros are 3-2-1-1 (space-bar-space-bar).
• In the middle there is a standard 1-1-1-1-1 (space-bar-space-bar-space), which
is important because it means the numbers on the right are optically inverted!
• The one is 2-2-2-1 (bar-space-bar-space).
• The eight is 1-2-1-3 (bar-space-bar-space).
• The one is 2-2-2-1 (bar-space-bar-space).
• The seven is 1-3-1-2 (bar-space-bar-space).
• The zero is 3-2-1-1 (bar-space-bar-space).
• The six is 1-1-1-4 (bar-space-bar-space).
• The stop character is a 1-1-1 (bar-space-bar).

Have fun decoding those 12-digit bar codes!

For more information on bar codes and related topics, check out the links on the next
page.