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September 10, 2007

RFID chips and cancer -- ask Amal

Posted by Kristi Heim at 6:23 PM

Embedding microchips in humans scares some people on privacy grounds alone. Now the chips are raising alarms for a different reason -- a potential link to cancer.

Studies done in the 1990s found that chip implants had "induced" malignant tumors in lab mice and rats, according to this AP story.

The Food and Drug Administration approved the VeriChip by Applied Digital Solutions for use in humans in 2005. At the time, the man in charge of the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the FDA, was Tommy Thompson.

Two weeks after the approval took effect, the story recounts, Thompson left his job, and five months later he took a paid position on the board of Applied Digital Solutions.

This just doesn't look good for Thompson or for the 2,000 people with RFID chips in their bodies now.

To get a sense of how worrisome this newly uncovered research might be, I asked one of them. Amal Graafstra has put two chips in his own hands voluntarily, but he deliberately avoided the kind approved by the FDA.

Amal Graafstra

Graafstra opens a door by waving his micro-chipped hand near the keypad.

The reason is that he wanted to be able to remove his implants easily for any reason. The "anti-migration" coating on pet and human implant chips makes them much harder to take out.

Graafstra said he strongly suspects it's this coating that caused cancerous cells to grow around the implant sites on the animals in the studies.

"Now I'm just that much more satisfied I chose not to get an 'FDA approved human' or pet implant which have this coating," he writes in his blog. Graafstra manages to provide a good source of do-it-yourself information on RFID, as well as some clear-headed thinking about the science around it.

Could it be that these self-taught "guinea pigs" provide better expertise on the topic than the FDA?

July 20, 2007

More RFID resources and more debate

Posted by Kristi Heim at 1:35 PM

Today's story on RFID in new Washington state driver licenses and ID cards is only part of a much larger story about the growing use of RFID technology in all kinds of applications. More public discussion about the impact of these technologies seems warranted.

A few readers called or e-mailed me with questions about the story, which I'll try to answer.

Q: Why wasn't there a way for the public to find out about this and weigh in before the decision to go with the new driver licenses was made?

A: I'm not sure, but not all the technical details are finalized, so there may be room for change. Here is what we know so far. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security wants the system to be compatible with its Nexus program, so states essentially accept whatever strengths or weaknesses come with that program.

Q: What can the "average citizen" do to fight against these tracking devices? Sure, they have "good intentions," however, I for one am very concerned about the intrusiveness of the government into our lives. It seems we have less and less rights all in the name of security."

A: The ability to opt in or out is key. At least for now, the Washington state system is voluntary.

RFID is also being used for electronic tolls on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and for the new ORCA regional transportation system pass.

Rene Martinez, a veteran of IBM's research labs, helped invent the new generation of long-range RFID technology. Controlling technology is difficult because it's always changing, he said. It should be behavior that any new laws attempt to control.
Martinez proposed the idea of an "electronic anti-stalking law," which would protect citizens or their property from being tracked by a government, company or person without permission.

Nicky Ozer of the Northern California chapter of the ACLU said that doesn't go far enough. Since RFID can be used surreptitiously, individuals don't know they are being tracked. She pointed to the case of seat belts.
"The combination of modifying the technology to make it safer and combining it with regulating behavior" is the right approach, she said.

Here is a list of current RFID-related bills in California. Here is some information on the Washington bill, which the WSA and a number of business groups opposed, saying it would create onerous new legal liabilities.

While most experts agreed that RFID is inherently insecure technology, there are ways to deploy it that capture its effectiveness and still protect privacy. One example is the Seattle Public Library, which uses an RFID system to check books in and out. The system does not store personal identification on the RFID tag, and it erases data in its system about who borrowed what book as soon as the book is checked in.

Update: Here's a tool that might come in handy someday.

March 7, 2007

Impinj raises $19 million in VC

Posted by Tricia Duryee at 10:52 AM

Impinj, which develops semiconductors based on RFID technology, said today that it has raised $19 million in venture capital.

AllianceBernstein, one of the world's largest asset management firms, led the round, with all previous investors also participating. They include Arch Venture Partners, GF Private Equity Group, Madrona Venture Group, Mobius Venture Capital, Polaris Venture Partners and strategic investors Unilever Technology Ventures, UPS Strategic Enterprise Fund, VentureTech Alliance and the Viterbi Group.

In total, Impinj has raised $98 million. The money will be used to escalate product development and delivery of its RFID readers, tags and antennas.

Impinj is one of the companies in town that has been named a likely candidate for an initial public offering.

Here's a story by Kristi Heim from last summer on how Impinj has had some early successes, but now other companies are starting to catch up.

February 20, 2007

Does RFID use need regulation?

Posted by Kristi Heim at 10:05 AM

Jeff Morris thinks so. Morris, chairman of the state House Committee on Technology, Energy and Communications, has been looking into radio frequency technology for years now.

This story on his bill doesn't have any comment from Morris. He has said in the past that he does not want to constrain the technology, but he does favor putting into law some basic principles that protect personal data. Here's a summary of the bill.

When the committee members first started discussing RFID a few years ago, industry representatives told them not to impose legislation that would damage a nascent industry. But that industry is not so nascent anymore.

RFID tags are now in passports, tires, contactless credit cards, Boeing planes, Nike shoes and Gap sweaters. Soon wireless companies plan to deploy them in mobile phones so that consumers can order products by holding their phones up to an advertising billboard.

While the technology is becoming ubiquitous, I'm not aware of any state consumer protections that address RFID specifically.

Last year I bought a sweater at a major retail chain store. I noticed that it had an RFID tag attached, sewn into the seam inside the sweater. When I asked the salesperson at the register what the tag was for, he said he didn't know.

Consumer privacy advocates have called for "killing" or deactivating RFID tags at the point of sale. Retailers argue the tags could allow them to offer better service, knowing size and style preferences of repeat customers, for example.

One option is for stores to notify consumers about what kind of data the tag contains, since the information can be easily read outside the store, and let consumers decide to keep it or not. But at least in this case, the basic principles of notification and choice were not being followed.

Is legislation the answer? I'd welcome any of your thoughts on RFID and privacy...

February 12, 2007

Impinj technology used to tag prescription drugs

Posted by Kristi Heim at 2:39 PM

Seattle chip supplier Impinj announced a significant deal today to apply its radio frequency technology to the pharmaceutical industry.

Purdue Pharma, which makes OxyContin and other prescription pain medication, will use Impinj RFID chips and readers in its high-speed packaging lines starting this spring.

The drug company said item-level RFID tags, which store a unique ID number describing the type of drug on each bottle, will help it improve product security from the factory to the pharmacy.

Impinj supplies the chips inside the tags and the tag readers. The system could read more than 1,000 tags per second during advance testing, Impinj said. In environments with multiple systems nearby, each emitting radio frequencies, the technology could read 200 tags per second reliably.

November 14, 2006

Impinj tests RFID tags on pharma bottles

Posted by Kristi Heim at 1:16 PM

Seattle RFID chip designer Impinj is hailing the reliability of its UHF (ultra high frequency) supply chain technology at a health care industry summit in Washington D.C.

Impinj is aiming the RFID tags and readers at the pharmaceutical industry to identify and track prescription drugs. But the industry so far had been leaning toward high frequency (HF) chips for speed and accuracy. Whether that technology is adopted could play a big role in Impinj's future.

Impinj said this morning its technology performed with 100 percent reliability during a live demonstration.The company demonstrated reading 600 tags per minute on bottles containing liquids, gel caps, solids and powder. The tags were made by Owens-Illinois with Impinj chips inside.

October 31, 2006

New RFID implant for humans

Posted by Kristi Heim at 1:48 PM

The latest scheme for RFID tags is another medical application for microchips implanted in humans. A St. Paul company says it received a U.S. patent last week for a "glucose-sensing RFID implantable microchip" that could allow diabetics to monitor their blood sugar levels.

The microchip injected under a person's skin has a glucose sensor, a passive transponder and an integrated circuit. It can be scanned with an RFID reader to determine blood sugar levels, avoiding the usual method of pricking a finger to measure a drop of blood.

The maker of the technology calls itself Digital Angel, a company best known for producing electronic tags for pets, fish and livestock. Digital Angel is a subsidiary of Applied Digital, the company that makes the VeriChip, the first FDA-approved human implantable microchip.

While it hails the patented chip as a breakthrough, the company says it has "extensive work" ahead before it can gain FDA approval. Digital Angel says it "foresees expansion beyond the human market" because apparently animals have a diabetes problem, too. Meanwhile, some humans are already experimenting with the chips on their own, while others are increasingly worried about such technology.

August 7, 2006

Security holes in new passports

Posted by Kristi Heim at 2:18 PM

A computer researcher demonstrated late Friday what some experts have long suspected -- the data inside new electronic passports that the State Department is introducing this year can be copied, opening the door for criminals to pass themselves off as other travelers.

German security researcher Lukas Grunwald of DN-Systems showed how the information stored on a radio frequency identification (RFID) tag could be copied and transferred to another card, using an inexpensive RFID reader, software and a smart card writer.

State Department officials have repeatedly insisted that the new passports are secure, and the U.S. will begin issuing them to millions of Americans in October to phase out the old passports that are not chipped.

While the State Department has continued to push its plan for RFID, a Department of Homeland Security committee said the plan makes no sense.

RFID may be fine for tracking merchandise, "but for other applications related to human beings, RFID appears to offer little benefit when compared to the consequences it brings for privacy and data integrity," the DHS Emerging Applications and Technology Subcommittee concluded in this report.

Passports need digital (machine readable) technology, just not RFID, the report said.

"RFID offers no anti-forgery or antitampering benefit over alternatives such as contact chips, bar codes, or pixelization."

July 31, 2006

Impinj getting some competition

Posted by Kristi Heim at 4:55 PM

Seattle's Impinj has quietly become the leader in production of cutting edge silicon chips for radio frequency identification tags, the tiny tags used to identify and track goods in manufacturing and retail.

Now the company is about to get some competition from Texas Instruments. TI said today it began offering its own so-called Gen 2 RFID chips, which take RFID technology to a more advanced level in terms of fast and accurate data reading and lower power consumption.

Until today, TI had to buy RFID silicon from Impinj, which had 100 percent market share in Gen 2 chips (Impinj designs the chips and has them manufactured by Taiwan Semiconductor). Impinj might find another less direct competitor in Hewlett-Packard, which is developing a wireless chip that exchanges data between an object and a reader, like RFID, but with higher speed and more storage capability. But HP says it needs several more years to bring its chip to market.

June 5, 2006

Active RFID tags in the sky

Posted by Kristi Heim at 4:49 PM

Boeing took another step toward putting active radio frequency identification tags onto airplane parts by beginning a 120-day test of the tags on board a FedEx plane. Boeing wants to test potential electromagnetic interference from the battery-powered tags, which the FAA has not approved yet.

The tags were installed on the flight deck, avionics compartment, cargo compartment and wheel wells. They operate at 915 MHz and transmit a signal every three seconds, making them readable from as far as 1,000 feet away.

Ken Porad, Boeing Commercial Airlines' RFID program manager, says the active tags will allow checks on aircraft inventory without opening access doors. Boeing has been promoting the use of RFID tags with its suppliers, saying the airline industry will benefit by being able to track and manage parts more effectively if they have chips holding information such as maintenance history.

But questions remain about how tagging numerous parts will affect airplane assembly, and whether active tags will be considered safe by the FAA. Last year the FAA approved the use of passive tags, which do not transmit signals independently, on airplane parts.

Tricia Duryee
Tricia Duryee

Angel Gonzalez
Angel Gonzalez

Kristi Heim
Kristi Heim

Benjamin J. Romano
Benjamin J. Romano

Mark Watanabe



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