Business Technology

Have You Taken Your Last Swipe?

With RFID technology gaining ground, some institutions of higher ed have begun implementing it.

Anyone who is following technology trends is hearing more about the marvels of RFID. Prognosticators envision a not-too-distant future in which there will be no lines in supermarkets and no need to pay cash at the gas pump. RFID will act like a "smart" system, tracking items as they are pulled off the shelf and deducting payments automatically from bank accounts.

These pundits are obviously putting a lot of faith in RFID, a technology that is simple in theory, but-like all new technology-expensive to implement. Still, retailers and security services are finding more mainstream uses for RFID. Can it be too long before RFID comes to campus?

Truth is, some universities are already using RFID technology, although use is limited.

"RFID technology allows us to run a better library."
-Bruce Miller, University of California, Merced.

It may be a while before RFID technology is in place at campus bookstores, dining halls, and rec centers, but if current buzz is any gauge, RFID is going to become a common technology on campus and everywhere.

The letters RFID stand for "radio frequency identification." An RFID tag, which can be embedded in a security card or placed on a packaging label, gives off a radio signal that is picked up by antennae in the reading devices.

If programmed into the system, a person's identification information and other data are easily verified-sometimes at great distances-without the need for the user to swipe a card or stand in close proximity to the technology.

Some RFID tags are made to be "read only" for one-way communication-these types of tags are the ones most commonly used by libraries, or in highway speed-pass systems.

Other tags are in "read and write" format, allowing for more control. Data can not only be read by the system, but can be changed on the fly. The data stored in an RFID tag can be updated-a retail price can be marked down, for example.

RFID technology has been around for a while, but uses have been mostly applied to agriculture and industrial sectors. For example, ranchers are already tracking large herds of cattle with RFID signals; transportation managers use it to monitor railroad cars.

If RFID technology is being used at all on campus, it's most likely in the library to track research materials and sign out books. The library system at the University of California, Merced started using RFID technology this year. "RFID technology allows us to run a better library," says R. Bruce Miller, the university librarian.

The UC, Merced library uses RFID technology in two ways: to check out books and to monitor the use of research publications and other materials that do not leave the building. The system reads data programmed to the RFID tags that have been placed on cards inside the library's books and publications. Each book is identified by a string of numbers that can be matched to publication name within the system.

A database records that ID when a book is checked out, or even if it is moved off a shelf for a period of time. Staff can monitor who has taken out a book, but the RFID tag inside the publication does not contain any personal information about who is reading what, nor does it include the book's title. The system was set up this way to quell fears of privacy violations, says Miller.

"Even if some other RFID system breaks the encryption, all someone would see is a string of numbers. There is no personal content on the card," explains Miller.

The RFID system, though, will be relied upon to do more than track materials. After all, libraries already have bar code systems and related readers that can help do that.

The real use for RFID will come when the library culls through the research material that does not leave the facility. Librarians at research facilities routinely have to decide which materials should be kept and which ones should be removed, says Miller.

Until RFID systems, this required poring through written requests for research material and also relying on memory. "We would have to take a highly paid librarian and walk through asking about what has been used. That cost is horrendous," he says. "You literally have to touch every book in the system."

RFID will automatically track usage. "Down the road, when I have to take 15 percent of the books out of the library, I will be able to see what hasn't been used." RFID will allow the staff to rely less on manual labor and more on analytics.

Considering the efficiency, why aren't RFID systems used on more campuses and in more general retail locations? High cost is the reason. An RFID reader can run $1,000. Comparatively, the cost for the standard reader used for mag-stripe technology might be several hundred dollars.

Miller compares the RFID costs to other library tracking systems. Inserting and tracking a book with a bar code system might cost 10 cents per publication, whereas inserting an RFID tag costs 85 cents. "When you are dealing with 100 books, that's no big deal. When you are talking about millions of books, that's an interesting number," he posits.

UC, Merced is in the enviable position of being a start-up facility. It is the newest campus in the UC system, having opened just last year. The library, which opened this year, has only 40,000 books. Investment in RFID is possible because there are fewer books to deal with and no older volumes to retrofit with the new technology. The institution's inventory is quite manageable when compared to other libraries in the UC system. UC, Berkeley, for example, has at least 10 million books in its library, Miller notes.

That's not to say that other higher ed library systems haven't implemented RFID. The library at the National University of Singapore is known for its RFID system, says Miller. Still, it will be awhile before the technology is more the norm than the exception at campus library systems.

And while RFID holds the promise of potential labor cost savings and more accurate data, Miller has obviously not realized them yet.

But there are reasons other than cost that explain why RFID is not more commonly in use on campus.

A concern:
Hackers can exploit imperfections in RFID just as they have with software and networks.

There is not yet a universal RFID technology standard, notes Jim Zaorski, CEO of Sequoia Retail Systems and a recent speaker on RFID at the 2006 CAMEX conference sponsored by the National Association of College Stores.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology developed an RFID technology, but the rest of the industry has been hesitant to recognize that format as the RFID protocol.

"People said, 'This is great, but we shouldn't have one lab in Cambridge making the standards.' By this point everyone thought we would have a set of RFID standards, but we don't," says Zaorski. Until there's a universal standard, there will be hesitancy to select a commercial system that may not work on a wider or global scale.

The other concern is security. Hackers can exploit imperfections in RFID technology just as they have with software and networks. The media has already covered the instance of a graduate student at UC, Berkeley who checked out books from the Oakland Public Library and overwrote the data on the RFID tags with a commercial system to prove that libraries should employ tighter RFID security.

Another report, released this spring from researchers at the Vrije University in Amsterdam, warned that RFID codes can be infected with computer viruses that can be spread from point to point. The report, titled "Does Your Cat (or Passport) Have a Computer Virus?", is meant to dispel the widely believed assumption that RFID tags cannot become infected with such viruses because of their limited memory.

"The tags apparently are more vulnerable than first thought," the researchers write, while recounting their own successful efforts to place viruses into RFID tags. They also warn that small, infected tags can do a huge amount of damage. An entire database can become corrupted if a virus is not detected in time. They offer tight security measures and routine system checking as the main antidotes.

Despite some of these new findings, momentum is growing for RFID use.

This spring card vendor HID announced a partnership with MIT to create a website that will not only be a primer about RFID technology, but also address concerns about privacy and vulnerabilities.

It may be a while before every student is carrying a card with an RFID tag, but given the interest and the potential, it may not be too long before the technology is part of higher education.

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