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Category: RFID, Automated Data Collection, and Internet of Things

RFID, AIDC and IoT News: In Fits and Starts, Human Tracking Using RFID Continues to Advance, as GAO Announces New Personnel Tracking System


System, As with Others, Using Active RFID Tags to Monitor Attendance, Movement, Location of Employees


March 8, 2017
SCDigest Editorial Staff

Since its rise to prominence in the early 2000s (though the technology has been around much longer than that) privacy groups have worried about many aspects of RFID, with its potential to enable human tracking (think forcibly embedded chips) as one of the most foremost concerns.

In that regard, RFID is just a continuation of such concerns that arose from some fringe groups relative to bar coding, with images of bar codes appearing to have been branded into human skin appearing in some flyers occasionally put under windshields of cars outside of trade shows in the 1990s.

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GAO says a variety of form factors for the tags are available, such as lanyard style, clip-on, wrist bands and embeddable - though that refers to uniforms, not human skin..

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Of course, most in the industry laugh off such concerns. However, slowly but somewhat surely, using RFID to track humans moves along, popping up here and there - for now.

For example, there have been controversies in the handful of school districts across the US that have tried to use RFID to track students' attendance and location in the school using RFID tags meant to be attached to backpacks.

In 2012, protests from parents eventually forced a few schools near San Antonio to abandon their RFID tracking systems, protests that came to a head after one student sued the district after she was barred from running for student government if she refused to bring her RFID tag to school with her. (See Maybe SpyChips Book had a Point, as Students and Parents Protest Personal Tagging at Texas Schools.)

Around the same time, in Bay Shore, NY students designated overweight or obese began being equipped with a wristwatch-like devices that counted heartbeats, detected motion and even tracked students' sleeping habits. It appears from web searches that program is still in place.

The Electronic Freedom Foundation issued a statement at the time warning about a possible slippery slope from student tracking systems.

"An RFID chip allows for far more than that minimal record-keeping," the organization said. "Instead, it provides the potential for nearly constant monitoring of a child's physical location."

Further, the Foundation asked: "If RFID records show a child moving around a lot, could she be tagged as hyperactive? If he doesn't move around a lot, could he get a reputation for laziness?"

In 2015 there was news about office complex in Sweden that was encouraging workers there to get RFID implants and use them to do such things as pay for lunch, access the copy machine, open office doors and more. (See Office Complex in Sweden Offers Option of Embedded RFID for Workers to Automate Access, Buy Lunch.)

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Though not designed for tracking, once implanted such chips could certainly be used for that purpose, such as companies in the complex putting in readers to monitor an employee's location. The program in Sweden does not appear to have taken off.

Of course, such real-time tracking for mobile employees such as delivery drivers is increasingly common, generally using GPS.

Now news this week of a Canadian company called GAO RFID releasing what it calls a new "Long Range Personnel Tracking System," which uses RFID as its core technology.

It turns out GAO is far from alone. Web searches also turn of companies such as Jadak, Wavetrend and Empress also offer RFID-based employee tracking.

In some cases, this is targeted at workers out in remote locations, where such tracking can really improve safety in case of any issues in the field by communicating which employees are where.

But increasingly,the same approach to knowing knowing who is doing what, where is coming to basic outdoor environments such as construction sites, and also indoors as well.

GAO says its Active Personnel Tracking system "provides a cohesive solution for a variety of people tracking needs such as security, access control, attendance management, and individual locating."

The GAO system uses active RFID tags with their own power source to communicate their data (such as a simple employee identification number), versus passive tags that require energy from a reader to send their information.

That means the system is "always on" and readers can be far less densely populated at a given site to perform the reads than would be the case with passive tags.

The readers can identify where in/on the property the tag was read, if the tag is moving or stationary - and for how long - and other location-related information.

GAO says a variety of form factors for the tags are available, such as lanyard style, clip-on, wrist bands and embeddable - though that refers to uniforms, not human skin.

These RFID tags "transmit location information from the tag to the capture points [readers], which indicate the current location of the employee. As a result managers can use GAO's web app to see a real-time map view of any floor and access a wide range of reports" - maybe like how many times someone went to the restroom this morning?

Will such systems take off? Who knows.

The technology to track employees is certainly here, and would not be that expensive. If it does see widespread adoption over time, will that reduce the concerns about being tracked out of work, say as you are walking down Main Street?

Of course, Google, Facebook and other web/mobile sites already track your every move and interests as it is, as privacy-related concerns seem simply overwhelmed by convenience and commerce considerations.

At one level, tracking employees is just a subset of overall asset monitoring.

In an office location, maybe you could just leave your lanyard at your desk when you go to visit your friend down the hall to catch up on last night's game.

What do you think of RFID employee location and movement tracking? Too much monitoring, or no big deal? Is it invevitable? Let us know your thoughts at the Feedback button below.

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