April 30, 2008 at 10:55 am | Posted in Economoney, Hardware, Security, Technology | Leave a comment

Inventory control may not strike you as a subject of note. Businesses track their product in the back door and out the front. Obvious, and who cares? What if it affects your privacy and security?

It used to be that all that stuff you saw in stores and the warehouses they came from was counted by hand. Inventory day was a big deal. Still is in some places. I’ve seen some pretty messy inventory in my time. And that makes a difference – if you don’t know what you actually have to sell, how can you properly run a business? Those sales flyers you get from the big retailers? You wouldn’t believe how much coordination goes on behind that. All the stores in the flyers delivery zone have to have the product on the shelf by flyer day. (not counting those obnoxious electronics retailers who abuse customers with a carrot and no inventory, just to get you in the store.  A tip – if you didn’t spend anyway, they wouldn’t do it)

Anyway – lasers revolutionized inventory with the development of bar codes, those little bars that go bleep at the grocery checkout. Far less data error, far more accurate inventory. They just have to add the data once. You can tell when that didn’t happen when they have to run and find the price. The boxes the product came in also have bar codes and pretty much anything else in the chain has too – courier waybill, pack list, etc. One bleep and the real world is synced to the computer world. The list of stuff moves from warehouse to truck to store to customer. The resulting accuracy allows those online stores to tell you how many are available, or warn you when theres just one left.

(I once developed a bar code system for tracking police evidence)

The next generation of inventory tracking is RFID, Radio Frequency ID. Basically a bar code that says hello.  Rather than having to find the barcode, the reader simply bleeps who’s ‘on the air’. The tags in the area all shout their attendance. Think of it like wireless ID. The idea is that you can inventory an entire truck or store shelf in moments, without moving anything. Unlike barcodes which identify a product, RFID can identify a specific item. Each item in the store may have its own ID.

Adoption was pushed by a few key players like Walmart, who mandated it a few years ago to suppliers. As this article reviews, the project was not wildly successful as neither the suppliers not Walmart stores were prepared, nor had the supporting industry matured enough. But it is still moving forward, albeit more gradually. Adoption is not cheap, but it will pay for itself in time savings and accuracy.

OK – so back to the first question – who cares? It will take some time before its widely supported enough in the majority of products. But how about these scenarios:

* You walk into a store, take what you need and walk out. Your choices and ID are automatically registered and your plastic billed. This will come in stages, like those self-serve checkouts. Expect to see store design evolve to optimize invisible live inventory.

* You walk up to your car and it opens and starts without you doing anything. Thats already included on this car. Its called Presence.

* You walk up to your house and the security turns off, the door unlocks and opens, and the lights come up. Same tech as above. I already have a proximity card for accessing a secure facility.

* You arrive at an event and just walk in, your ticket purchase cross-referenced with your ID, read at the gate. Registration is invisible and automatic.

* Hiking on the mountain, the GPS system knows exactly where everyone in your group is and can give you  directions.

* You go on a holiday trip. When you return, you can download where you were, the weather and temperature, and can cross-link that to all of the photos you took. Automatically. Just as modern cameras capture information about the picture with the picture, some RFID tags can capture environmental information like ongoing location or environmental conditions. Some cameras actually capture GPS already.

* You swallow a pill. The pills tag monitors its digestion. Kodak has registered patents on a digestible tag.

* You put on an item in a stores dressing room. Your image is broadcast outside for friends. They call this ‘social retailing’.

I’ve seen US proposals for RFID in ‘Real ID’, as as well as a biometric database, so the ID cannot be used by anyone else. That secures the ID but means you can potentially be positively identified without your knowledge at any time. Makes for easier shopping and eliminates identity theft, but may be broadcasting personal data for anyone that wants it.

We also know that it will be used for security. A larger department store can lay out a reader mesh to track goods moving ‘outside’ without a registered purchase. But this also means they’ll know who you are when you arrive in the parking lot. If not from your ID, they will from your prior purchases you are wearing, still with ID tags embedded.  “How would you like it if, for instance, one day you realized your underwear was reporting on your whereabouts? “— California Senator Debra Bowen in 2003.

In the film Minority Report, people are identified by eye scans as they walk in public places, causing ads to address them by name. All of that data is also used to find people. It doesn’t take much to see this with RFID, even with eyes closed. Add in the 3D TV potential to step out to great you, (see comments) and you have an advertising environment that will literally step out into your world. (BTW, 3dh with Microsoft Surface and Lucid Touch make the interface Tom’s character used a reality. Doesn’t even need the surface.)

Certainly, some pets have been ‘microchip’ tagged for many years – thats RFID. I’ve read stories of families that have injected RFID tags under their skin for ID, to unlock their doors and help find their kids. In Europe, some clubs use skin embedded chips for VIPs for access and to pay for drinks.

Last year, a Danish company developed a firewalled, encrypted tag that would allow the consumer to control who reads when. This means you ‘turn on’ at point of sale, like in the take and walk scenario above, but are not tracked elsewhere. But will they implement that typically?

Another clarifier is range. RFID tags come in 3 types: Active, passive, and semi-passive.

Passive ones are basically a little antenna and a printed circuit that is powered by being read. The radio frequencies from the reader are enough to ‘activate’ the antenna and circuit. These are the cheapest and most likely kinds to find in products. They can simply be printed onto a surface, without obvious electronics. Those flat little squares you see inside some DVD cases, for example, with the circles of copper. Thats called an antenna. They may also be embedded, like a little grain of rice. As it has no power supply, the realistic reading range is just a few meters, depending on bodies of water (like humans) and other interfering factors. They cost only pennies each. The Danish tag mentioned is passive.

Active ones have a power supply and thus a larger reading range but a shorter shelf life. They’re more likely used on the loads inside a truck, for example. But the battery can still last 10 years. They can also monitor their environemt for things like temperature, shock, humidity, and so forth, saving the data on board. They can be read from hundreds of meters.

Semi-passives have a power supply for the chip and data but do not broadcast. Better than passive, not as good as active. Mid-priced. Mid-range. Can record data ongoing.

Many passports have RFID tags now, including the ability to store data of your country exit and entries. US passports were recently adapted to avoid ‘skimming’ (theft) of data when the documents are closed.

RFID’s are widely used in paying for transport such as subways, toll roads, and buses. While there is little security issue in paying for the bus, it nonetheless is a short range invisible general identity.

Eat beef? The life of the cow and carcass was tracked with RFID. American Express cards now include them.  My Visa card has a chip on the front for added security. Its a little flat grid area that stores data. Some customer loyalty cards have such things embeded, including customer data. This can be sitting in your wallet, readable by anyone. Who would have thought you needed to get a metal liner for your wallet?

While not exactly the mark of the beast, there are some issues to overcome to make it a safe and secure technology. The area is rife with leakage and and unanticipated consequences. Who would have thought that the day has come when our wallet would be singing our story and blabbing our secrets?


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