What is RFID (Radio Frequency Identification)?

by Robb Sutton

RFID tags are becoming more integrated into our lives by the day by showing up in the products we use frequently. While the most common example might be your credit cards (the days of swiping will be long gone soon)…RFID tags can show up in many common items such as trackers for races and small items, tickets, cars and other items that you would want to track. So what is RFID specifically?

What is RFID?

RFID’s are little chips that contain kilobytes of information that are embedded in an object. Most of these are passive tags that draw power from a RFID reader to transfer information. For example, your credit card has a small chip that contains your account information attached to an antenna that is then transmitted to a credit card reader that contains a RFID reader when you place the card close to the machine. The RFID reader then powers those chips with radio waves to read your account information or any other data that is supposed to be transferred from the chip to the reader.

In today’s world of connected devices, we can use RFID to send data to a cell phone that can then gather information from the internet to expand the amount of information and capabilities of RFID technology. RFID technology and the wide uses of it are making it a HUGE industry as well. The market value is expected to rise to $18.68 billion by 2026.

Common Uses of RFID

The most common use of these readers is in a passive format with very little information that needs to be transferred. They are widely used in inventory tracking, libraries and in retail environments (ever set off one of those alarms at the door?). The new Amazon grocery stores that use RFID in every product allow you to just walk out the door without even going through a checkout line. Even Apple Pay on your phone using NFC is a form of short distance two-way RFID.

Does your dog have a identification chip? That is an RFID chip that can be read by a vet or shelter should they get turned in after getting lost to be returned to the owner.

As you can see, the application of RFID technology is almost endless. Due to the lost cost nature of the technology and the size, they can be embedded in almost anything to transfer small bits of information and they do not have to be visible like you would see with a QR reader.

Why do I need to block RFIDs?

While this technology has found it’s way into being very useful in many applications, the use of it with sensitive account information is becoming the most common. While you might not care if you accidentally set off a retail exit alarm, you really do not want someone reading your credit card information out of your pocket.

An entire industry has now formed selling RFID blocking wallets, passport holders and even clothes. It has become big business that is capitalizing on security concerns.

The reality is that the chance that your credit card information could be stolen from a RFID reader by a bad guy is slim to none. That said…the same can be true of your keyless entry system of your car but I know someone personally that had everything stolen out of their car from one of those scanners. Better safe than sorry? I guess…but I wouldn’t go out and buy all RFID blocking clothes, wallets and accessories just yet. Even a piece of foil can block a RFID reader from getting your information. Also, at least for now, the technology isn’t so readily available that you have to worry about 12 bad guys on the subway sucking up your information and going for a shopping spree.

Like with any technology though, things are probably going to progress and that will get easier over time.

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