Why Radio Frequency Identification makes me nervous

26 May

Pretty soon we'll all be emitting radio signals from our passports, credit cards and other pieces of identification. That kind of information exposure has Jane Macdougall concerned.

You’re up on RFID, right? Radio Frequency Identification? All over it, right? Me neither.

If I hadn’t bought a special travel purse for an extended trip overseas, it might have been a long time before I became more acquainted with this technology.

You see, my purse came with an RFID-blocking compartment. The manufacturer doesn’t say how the blocking is accomplished but my guess is that the pocket is lined with metal foil of some description.

I was surprised to discover that I am a beacon. So are you. Increasingly, our passports, driver’s licences and credit cards include RFID tags. You, me, and pretty soon, just about everyone from students to Alzheimer’s patients will be a beacon emitting a constant stream of information. RFID: It gives new meaning to Joni Mitchell’s song I’m a Radio.

It’s like a bar code, only it doesn’t require line-of-sight scanning and can be accomplished at far greater distances

RFID isn’t new: It’s the same technology behind the LoJack stolen car recovery system that became commonplace a few years back. Radio Frequency ID — sometimes called dedicated short-range communication — is pretty simple stuff: The system includes a transponder that contains the information to be transmitted and a transceiver that reads the information. This is how your Canada/U.S.border Nexus card, or a road/bridge toll tag, works. You drive within range, the signal is picked up, information exchanged, and away you go. Super efficient. It’s like a bar code, only it doesn’t require line-of-sight scanning and can be accomplished at far greater distances. RFID is becoming increasingly widespread … and that’s why my big, ugly, black purse has a RFID blocking compartment. It turns out that for a very few dollars — as low as $20 — RFID readers can be purchased online. Illegally obtaining a whole library of personal information is now as easy as standing alongside someone while holding a RFID reader. If you were going shopping for identity theft opportunities, the airport is an ideal place to start.

It seems that blocking these signals isn’t as easy as a tin foil-lined wallet. Water, in the form of the human body, will block signals. Metals can dull the signal. Tin foil can only reduce the distance of transmission.

Our constant search to maximize efficiencies is what drives RFID technology

Our constant search to maximize efficiencies is what drives RFID technology. It’s been rumoured for years that the day is not long off when you’ll simply wheel your grocery cart past a scanner on your way out the store and the instantly tabulated contents will be assigned to your credit or debit card. Something to look forward to, indeed. There are aspects of efficiency, however, worth taking a hard look at.

As I waded through information on RFID, I kept encountering conveniences that had me little concerned. Your car has on-board computer systems for everything from locks to brakes. It’s possible for even garden variety evil geniuses to hack into these computers and remotely gain control over a vehicle. Is having your car robotized going to ever be a threat in your life? Pretty unlikely, but the University of Washington in conjunction with the University of California San Diego has created the Center for Automotive Embedded Systems Security specifically because these systems need to be understood and protected. Is the day looming when a rogue parking attendant will be able to spirit your car away from your driveway, maybe with you still in it? Are we going to need automobile insurance that includes Theft and Unmanned Drone coverage? Probably not. But if you’d told me Goldman Sachs was going to disintegrate, I couldn’t have envisioned that either.

We — nations, companies and individuals — need to be more vigilant about our technological vulnerabilities

Daniel Suarez is a writer who’s captured the attention of the tech community. With a batch of blockbustery bestsellers behind him, he’s been called the digital era’s Tom Clancy. He’s qualified to speak about the perils of techno-capitalism; before Hollywood started optioning his books, Suarez was an IT consultant, specializing in software for finance, defence and entertainment companies. He maintains that the complex algorithms underpinning modern life could all go horribly wrong very easily. That we — nations, companies and individuals — need to be more vigilant about our technological vulnerabilities. Bigger, faster, cheaper: we’re mighty partial to efficiency on a grand scale. On Feb. 19 of this year, a small, efficient group of men hacked their way into two Middle Eastern banks and made off with $45-million. It took less than 10 hours and took the cyber-security world by surprise.

I remember touring colonial American homes and being shown an innovation that was supposed to provide warning to a homeowner in the event of a nighttime trespasser. One of the risers in a flight of stairs would be made higher than the rest. The intruder, not knowing this, would stumble upon ascending the stairs thereby giving the sleeping homeowner a few moments warning of the intrusion. I look over at my black bag and find myself thinking that we’re going to need a lot more than tin foil to deal with what’s coming.

Source: http://life.nationalpost.com/2013/05/25/jane-macdougall-rfids-make-me-nervous/

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