RFID Technology: Boon or Bane?

Are you familiar with radio frequency identification (RFID)? RFID is technology that uses electromagnetic fields to remotely pull electronically-stored data from any object or animal containing an RFID chip. RFID chips can be either attached or imbedded, and they have a great number of applications: They’re used to facilitate payments via cell phones. They’re used to track products through the production process. They’re used to track finished goods and food through the supply chain. They’re even used to track people!

RFID chips can carry information as simple as a pet owner’s address, or as complex as computer instructions for each stage of assembly on a production line. The possibilities are both wonderful and scary!

On the wonderful side, RFID chips can be used to find lost children or Alzheimer’s patients, or to recover stolen cars or artwork. They can be used to identify and locate underground pipelines and power lines. They can streamline inventory management and retail store checkout. (Imagine completing your purchases by simply rolling your grocery cart past a scanner!)

On the scary side, we do not yet know the health risks of human implantation. Also, the fact that our movements, buying habits, personal health history and asset information can be collected without our knowledge or consent creates the very real potential for invasions of privacy and misuse of personal information.

In addition, the imbedding of RFID chips in items like passports, drivers’ licenses and debit/credit cards can be a bonanza for thieves. A bad guy carrying an inexpensive card reader needs only to stand by someone for a few seconds in order to steal or “skim” information from an RFID-enhanced card. That information can then be used to steal the cardholder’s identity or to run up a credit card balance.

How can you know whether your credit or debit card has RFID technology? Your card should tell you. It may display a symbol, most commonly a WIFI symbol consisting of four curved lines; or, it may contain a word or phrase such as “PayPass.” If you want to be sure, you can ask the card issuer whether your card contains an RFID chip.

How can you protect yourself from card skimmers? Our colleagues at Rehmann are distributing protective credit card sleeves, manufactured by 3M Company, to their clients. You can also purchase special wallets, and even small jamming devices. Some experts recommend carrying multiple RFID-enhanced cards together, so that the signals emitted by the cards get jumbled together. Another option is to create your own shield. (I recently read of someone devising a shield of out aluminum foil and duct tape.) Finally, you can simply choose to leave your RFID card at home or ask the card issuer to replace it with a card not containing RFID technology.

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