RFID Gunfight at the CeBIT Corral

The annual CeBIT technology show in Germany was almost the scene of a reenactment of “Gunfight at the OK Corral.” But, instead of Wyatt Earp vs. the McLaurys and Clantons, it was Robert Cresanti, United States undersecretary of Commerce for Technology, trading bullets over Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) with Viviane Reding, the European Information Society and media commissioner.

The stage was set a year ago at CeBIT when Reding announced a Europe-wide review of RFID tags. This occasioned a distinct worry about yet more European Union (EU) legislation and the prospect of major roadblocks to RFID expansion.

The EU had kept its research quiet and chose this year’s show to announce the findings. Cresanti revealed ahead of the Reding press conference that he stood ready to go on the offensive if she revealed a series of RFID restrictions or burdensome legislation. But instead of a showdown, the audience heard good news—a firm stance against RFID legislation.

“We must not over-regulate RFID,” said Reding. “The Commission’s RFID strategy will seek to raise awareness, stress the absolute need for citizens to decide how their personal data is used and ensure that Europe removes existing obstacles to RFID’s enormous potential.”

RFID is a way to identify goods, components and even people via smart tags that emit radio signals but don’t require direct scanning as in a bar code. As well as being an international trade hotspot, companies like IBM and SAP are all abuzz about this growing market.

“RFID will bring significant savings in material and logistics costs,” said Cresanti. “If you care about commerce, you care about RFID.”

European market research firm IDTechEx states that over a billion RFID tags were sold worldwide last year. Within a decade, that number may well multiply by over 500 times. IDTechEx estimates that this could represent a $25 billion market by 2017.

RFID Hurdles

To achieve that, however, RFID faces significant hurdles. On the one hand, it is attacked by privacy advocates concerned that “Big Brother” finally has the ultimate tool. Car manufacturers, for instance, could track vehicles, nag owners every three thousand miles about an oil change, and perhaps even cancel the warranty because they were late taking the car for a service.

And what about tagging people? Some already use them to track pets, children and criminals. China just produced national ID cards with RFID inside and this opens the door to keeping an eye on the citizenry at large. Such uses of smart tags, therefore, could create a backlash from privacy groups. It already threatened to derail the EU program.

“We should stimulate RFID technology in Europe while safeguarding personal data and privacy,” said Reding. “When used in a consumer context, the individual must be made aware of the tag and must have the option of removing it.”

Technological barriers, too, include the problem of achieving some kind of global standardization to simply the many frequencies in which RFID is currently forced to operate.

Here is the situation: In most areas, the technology uses the ultra high frequency (UHF) range from 865-868 MHz. But Russia, EU, USA, China, and other nations operate RFID at various frequencies. To make matters worse, this UHF band is packed with many other users such as TV, microwave ovens, cell phones, wireless LANs, Bluetooth and various two-way radios.