Assessing the technological consequences of RFID usage


The Empa, in a project together with the Institute for Futures Studies and Technology Assessment (IZT) and the German Federal Office for Information Security (BSI) has taken a close look at RFID storage devices. The results have now been published as a report, “The Risks and Opportunities Presented by the use of RFID Technologies”.


For years consumer protection agencies, business representatives and scientists all over the world have been debating the pros and cons of RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) technology, which enables non-contact transmission of data. One aim of the study was to raise the level of factual awareness in the discussion. The 128 page report therefore contains a comprehensive overview of the basic technology involved and describes potential applications. It also identifies the principle risks involved and the opportunities presented by the use of these non-contact data storage devices, known popularly in the press as “radio labels”. In addition the report also gives numerous examples where RFID systems are already in use today.

A tiny chip with an aerial

The basic technical idea behind RFID technology is quite simple. The devices, consisting of a small IC fitted with an antenna, are used to store an identification number (which is valid worldwide) and other data. This information can be accessed by means of a reader using radio frequency (RF) technology. The devices have now become so small and cheap that they can be attached anywhere or to practically anything. They should soon displace the traditional barcode, which can only store 20 bits of data. In contrast, RFID chips can, depending on the type, store hundred or millions of bytes and in addition can be identified unambiguously anywhere in the world. RFID systems are therefore a great help in reconciling the real world inventory on the ground with the virtual one on computer.

The technology is already in use today in some places. In the animal husbandry field, cattle, sheep and pigs are unambiguously identified using RFID devices so that they can be tracked without interruption for the whole of their lifecycles, from birth to slaughter and sale of the meat. The technology is also employed in non-contact ski-pass systems and in the latest automobiles, where locking the car with the electronic key activates the anti-theft immobilization system.

Putting an end to shoplifting?

It is possible to think up many other applications, and some are already in the trial phase. One such example is the idea of the automatic check-out in shops and supermarkets. A customer’s purchases need no longer be scanned individually by sales staff at the check-out. Instead the shopping trolley full of goods is pushed through a gate where the RFID reader immediately registers all the items it contains. And also any items which a shoplifter may have concealed beneath his own clothing.

But as well as presenting new opportunities, the technology also brings risks in its wake. At the Empa, a group led by Professor Lorenz Hilty has investigated the current and future dangers associated with RFID, as well as the efficacy of security measures. During the study, numerous experts and specialists were consulted, the results being presented in chapter 7 of the project report, entitled “Current status and potential danger of conventional security measures”.

In the experts’ opinion, security threats emanates from many directions. Chips could be copied, so that identification would no longer be unambiguous. The data stored in the RFID chip could be manipulated, the chips or their antennae damaged, and the transmission of data between chip and reader prevented. As with traditional price tags, RFID labels can simply be removed from one item and attached to another – from a cheap chocolate Father Christmas to a more expensive pack of cheese fondue mixture, for example. But most such attacks could be countered by appropriate measures, such as enciphering data or sticking on the labels so they cannot be easily removed. Counter measures do, of course, have their price, and the need use them increases the cost of implementing RFID technology.

Private life no longer so private

An additional problem foreseen by the experts is possible encroachment into the private life of users. Every time an RFID-tagged object – be it a shoe or a suitcase – nears a reader, it leaves a data trail which can be followed. If a person can be linked to the items in question, then that person’s movements and activities can also be traced. For many, this is a disturbing thought. Whether this danger is really new is a point on which the experts disagree. Credit cards and mobile telephones can also be traced in exactly the same way but although these items have been in use for years, no serious problems have emerged as a result.

All in all, the experts considered the current danger presented by the possibility of attacks on the integrity of RFID systems to be very small. The greater problem is still that of overcoming the technical difficulties involved in the daily operation of the new systems. However, if the use of RFID technology does in future become widespread, then the danger of security being compromised will increase. And if society becomes more and more dependent on the functioning of such systems, then its vulnerability to such abuse will also increase.

Dr. Bärbel Zierl

Contact: Prof. Lorenz Hilty,