RFID Will Grow… To Track You Everywhere?

By April 20, 2012

There’s one in your US passport (if it was issued after 2006), there may be one in the last book you checked out of the library, and your car was probably tracked down the assembly line by yet another. Radio Frequency IDs are tiny chips that hold information, and can spit it out from a distance, usually without a local battery. But while the technology is invaluable in many industries, it may just be catching on – and that could become a hot button issue for privacy advocates.

It was considered a gamble when IBM piloted RFID product tracking with Wal-Mart in the early 1990s, and it wasn’t surprising that the trials never made it past that phase. But RFID chips have gotten cheaper and cheaper during the past two decades, and are now used in identification cards, manufacturing, inventory tracking and a host of other applications.

In fact, the growing RFID industry – which includes chips, readers and the go-between software – will generate $70.5 billion between 2012 and 2017, according to a new report by ABI Research. The cause, in large part, will be increasing adoption in retail settings, where the chips have concrete advantages over bar codes.

“Retail in particular is set to experience very strong growth; in fact, it will become the single largest RFID sector in 2015,” said ABI group director John Devlin, in a press release.

RFID’s longstanding use in the auto industry is unlikely to shrink, but growth in other markets is likely to outpace it in the near future, according to researchers.

“To date, the automotive sector has been a strong proponent of RFID, largely for immobilization and keyless entry,” Devlin said. “However, penetration is already high and it will be constrained by the slower rise in automotive production volumes. As a result, it will lose status as a leading RFID market due to other established markets for RFID retaining excellent potential for further adoption.

Smartphones aren’t predicted to be a major growth area, with services like Googe Wallet leaning instead on similar near field communication standards. Rather, other areas of growth are largely anticipated to be government and municipal – in authenticating official documents, and in expanded municipal transportation use, which has started to catch on in the last decade.

But privacy advocates question whether the expansion of RFID systems could allow unscrupulous advertisers and other miscreants to track unwitting consumers without their consent. Due to power concerns, there has been limited real-world roll-out of encrypted RFID technology.

Images: Morguefile, Flickr//Damian613 CC-BY