Tech Talk; From the Archives Understanding RFID

by Ratha Thiv

What exactly is RFID and do you need RFID blocking technology? RFID or Radio-Frequency-Identification is a method of reading and capturing information through radio waves. RFID is made up of two components: a tag and a reader. The tag themselves are also made up of two components: a microchip and an antenna. The microchip stores and processes the information and the antenna receives and transmit a signal. 

RFID works just like barcodes or magnetic strips; they provide a unique identifier for their objects. A user would need to have the item scanned to obtain the information hidden inside either the barcode, magnetic strip or RFID tag. Unlike a barcode or magnetic strip that needs to be close to their readers, RFID tags can be read from further distances. RFID was initially used for inventory tracking but evolved into different sorts of uses such as passports, IDs, credit cards and employee badges. When employees need to scan a badge to enter a door, their keycard uses RFID technology. The RFID tag is contained inside the plastic of the employee’s ID. When the ID is scanned, it sends information about the employee’s badge number to the reader. This allows the employee access into doors or restricts them from entering other doors.

RFID blocking technology has also grown to become popular. Wallets and sleeves are among one of the top items that are now being sold in the market that offers blocking of a RFID reader. Backpacks are also with the RFID blocking trends. A quick Google search for an RFID blocking wallet range anywhere from less than ten dollars to over two hundred dollars. The price range depends on the type of material used to make the wallets. The same applies to backpacks that offer RFID blocking technology. Not all RFID blocking items are the same though. Some might work better than others at blocking readers. The first generation of RFID technology was more prone to RFID skimming due to the lack of security when being read from an RFID reader. Videos online are very popular in showcasing people getting their information stolen from an RFID skimmer from far away. Some readers work in close proximity or up to twenty feet away. These types of videos are intended to scare majority of the public to start purchasing these RFID blocking items. With the newest generation of RFID technology, it is now harder for an attacker to skim information than before.  An attacker would have a better chance and spend less time purchasing information through the dark web. Skimming someone’s credit card would take more time due to the attacker having to scan nearby for anyone with an RFID credit card. The readers are also bulky so it would make them easy to spot in a crowd of people.

RFID blocking items do their jobs, but is it necessary to have? Just like most situations, it all depends on the user. Some might not care at all about it and be on their way with their lives. Some might just buy those items to be on the safe side and protect themselves from readers. 

Ratha Thiv was a student in Howard Burpee’s CMIT 295 Senior Seminar in the spring of 2018


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