IT intelligence: Radio-frequency ID

Robin Fisk continues his 10 technologies to watch: part five - radio-frequency ID.

You might be pleasantly surprised to hear of a link between the successor to the barcode and the Beach Boys.

Readers familiar with the 1967 classic Good Vibrations will know that the strange, ethereal sound in the chorus is made by an electronic instrument created by Paul Tanner, which he called 'the Box', a forerunner of his Tannerin. Tanner took his inspiration from the Theremin, invented by the Russian Leon Theremin. The Theremin works by emitting electric signals, the frequency of which are controlled through two antennas and amplified through a loudspeaker.

Theremin also invented the covert listening devices used by Russian spies after the Second World War. This work is credited with being the predecessor of what we now know as radio-frequency identification, or RFID. RFID tags are electronic identification devices that can be read by receivers from a range of several hundred metres. The information transmitted by an RFID tag is far greater than that which can be held in a normal barcode.

British passports contain RFID tags, as do Transport for London's Oyster cards. Your car won't start unless the RFID tag in the key is recognised by the ignition system.

How might this technology apply to not-for-profits? Perhaps charities could tag the vests of runners to keep track of participants in fundraising races? Or it could speed up data-entry tasks by replacing the barcodes in membership renewals. For example, you could scan an entire mailbag instead of passing each piece under a barcode scanner.

RFID provides speed and convenience, but RFID readers can be bought easily, and there are reports about how easily the data can be decrypted. For a technology born out of espionage, it is hardly surprising there are concerns about privacy.

- Robin Fisk is managing director of software company Fisk Brett.

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