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Thomas' Tech Tales

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Is Big Brother watching your purchases?

You may think, at least you would hope, that once you purchase an item from the store there is some sense of privacy involved in the transaction. That you may take the item wherever you wish and do with it what you will, without any foreign intrusion. While this is taken for granted, and it should be, there is a new device that is tracking items from the store and back to your home.

This may sound like something from Big Brother, but the radio-frequency identification tags that stores are putting into their merchandise is no joke. The RFID tags were first introduced into the consumer sector in order to increase the efficiency of inventory tracking. The way it works is that companies can track the RFID tags in the product, so when a product is taken off of the shelf the company will know about it almost immediately. That way the store will always be stocked and items can’t get lost. This can become a problem when the company can still receive the RFID signal after the purchased item leaves the store.

RFID tags have many uses and more are being thought of everyday. Many of them include the marketing sector as previously mentioned but many uses are happening in more active roles. RFID tags are used in track events to record lap times, they are implanted in animals for identification and tracking, and libraries incorporate them for inventory management and tracking as well. Humans have also been implanted for a variety of reasons; some clubs in Europe use RFID tags in VIP customers to help pay for drinks and admittance, while places of high security use RFID tags in their employees.

RFID devices can be extremely small, only a few millimeters wide, so they are easily incorporated into almost anything. Most devices are made up of two parts, one that sorts the information and the other being an antenna that sends and receives the information. Some tags only consist of an antenna; this means they can be printed directly onto a product without needing a chip. Due to this characteristic, RFID tags are starting to replace barcodes in some areas since they have many more capabilities than a traditional barcode.

Some ideas have arisen in the medical field for incorporating tags and implants in patients. The idea is that an ongoing patient would have the implant put in so nurses could scan it and get all the information they need. This would make everything work smoother and safer so patients aren’t misdiagnosed or over medicated.

So while most of the time RFID tags are safe and make a business run smoother, some of them are too strong for their own good. That means you buy a sweater, and all of a sudden Wal-Mart knows where you live. Many people find this intrusive and steps are being taken so this kind of thing stops happening. Of course the bigger story is how such a small device can make such a big difference in the way the world does business.

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Author info

Thomas McMahon Thomas McMahon is a student at Albertson's College of Idaho who, when he's not playing some geeky video game or designing some new, award-winning engineering project, plays basketball and tennis. His study interest is engineering.

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