Take me to your reader

It sounds like something straight out of a sci-fi thriller: tiny chips embedded in consumer products or even beneath the skin, enabling Big Brother or a corporate cousin to track your every move.

Tag, you’re it: Radio-frequency identification tags are manufactured at UPM Raflatac in Fletcher. Photo Courtesy Upm Raflatac

But that kind of talk draws a hearty laugh from Operations Manager Mike Keen of UPM Raflatac, which manufactures radio-frequency identification tags at its 2-year-old facility in Fletcher. “The technology is such that even the most powerful readers can only read them from 2 to 3 meters away,” he explains. “It’s not like you can scan somebody’s house and see what they have inside or anything.”

RFID technology uses high-frequency radio waves and minuscule antennae to keep track of objects, people and places. And though the concept isn’t new, it’s only in the past five years that RFID has really taken off commercially, as major retailers like Wal-Mart and even the U.S. Department of Defense have started using the technology for such diverse purposes as charting the movement of goods through a supply chain, keeping track of inventory, controlling access to certain areas, and preventing theft.

Until recently, UPM Raflatac’s primary product has been pressure-sensitive labels. With 2,500 employees, the Finnish company racked up about $1.3 billion in sales last year. A leader in the growing RFID market, the company’s two dedicated manufacturing facilities now supply the tags to customers worldwide. “When our investment is fully implemented here, we will be able to make about a billion RFID tags a year at [the Fletcher plant],” Keen reports.

Belly up to the bar code

“This is the only RFID facility we have in the U.S.,” notes Keen. “[It] was put here because the label-stock factory was here, and we could use that infrastructure. Typically, the RFID tags are embedded inside the labels.”

UPM Raflatac has been in this area for more than 20 years. As for the RFID facility, “It’s a very clean electronics-manufacturing plant. We have very little waste,” he continues. “It employs high-tech workers, and we do have an abundance of workers who would fit that profile here.” Eventually, the plant expects to employ about 125 people.

Across the industry, RFID tags cost less than 10 cents apiece, says Keen. Made of silicon and aluminum, the tags range from 1 to 4 square inches. “They have an antenna and an integrated-circuit chip that’s attached to the antenna. That’s kind of the brains of the tag,” he explains. Less than 1 square millimeter in size, the IC chip contains a unique code, which is transmitted once the tag receives power from a fixed reader. Once the unique code is received, it can be linked to information on a computer database.

RFID, says Keen, is similar to a bar code but far more efficient. “Typically … a reader would be built into a dock door … going from a warehouse to a production area or something. And rather than having to scan the bar code on each individual item, he adds, “As goods move through that doorway, it would read the goods.”

But tracking products is only one of a growing list of applications for the technology, notes Keen. It’s also being used for mass-transit systems, concert and event ticketing, registering motorists zooming through toll booths, controlling access to health clubs, making it easier to check out books from libraries or rent DVDs, and on and on.

Even some U.S. passports—called e-Passports—now contain RFID tags. According to the State Department’s Web site, the first ones were issued in August of 2006, with special features including “securely stored biographical information and a digital image that are identical to the information that is visually displayed in the passport.”

“Without your knowledge or consent”

As RFID’s popularity has grown, the technology has also started catching flak. Katherine Albrecht, who holds a doctorate in consumer education from Harvard, co-wrote Spychips: How Major Corporations and Government Plan to Track Your Every Purchase and Watch Your Every Move (Plume, 2006). The book details industry plans and proposals for expanded use of RFID technology. And some of those future plans—like installing RFID readers to scan items people are carrying to target them for marketing purposes—have what she calls “Big Brother implications.”

“Unlike a bar code that requires a line of sight, RFID tags can actually be interrogated silently and without your knowledge or consent,” says Albrecht. Right now, the tags aren’t being embedded in individual items, she notes. But once that happens, unique codes could be linked to personal information such as credit-card or checking-account numbers when an item is purchased. “It’s essentially a proxy for all your personal-identification info,” Albrecht explains.

But Keen believes such theories result from a lack of understanding about the technology and its limitations. “Wal-Mart, Target, Best Buy—there are quite a few retailers that use [the technology], at least at the pallet level,” notes Keen. But in most cases, he says, there’s only one RFID tag per pallet, so the tracking chips never make it into customers’ hands. “In the future, we will see more carton and item-level tagging,” he concedes. Even when that happens, however, “The RFID-chip manufacturers are programming ‘kill’ commands in the ICs so they can be de-activated when an item is purchased,” says Keen.

That hasn’t placated critics, however. Already, the e-Passports have drawn widespread fire from those who say the information could be hacked or viewed surreptitiously, leaving people vulnerable to identity theft.

Perhaps the most controversial use for this technology involves implanting a tiny RFID device beneath a person’s skin. “Chipping” made a splash recently when California legislators banned employers from requiring their workers to submit to this. Asked about this, Keen said he hadn’t heard about any type of human tracking, emphasizing that UPM Raflatac does not produce any kind of implants.

But at least one company is manufacturing such devices, and about 2,000 people have had them implanted, the Los Angeles Times reported last month. “We shouldn’t condone forced ‘tagging’ of humans,” the paper quoted California state Sen. Joe Simitian as saying. “It’s the ultimate invasion of privacy.”

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