How to Spot a RFID Chip

By Dan Antony

Radio frequency identification (RFID) is a form of auto-identification, or “Auto-ID,” like barcodes, but relies upon a radio signal versus a bar-code scan. It is highly controversial. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a law banning mandatory implantation of RFID in humans (like prisoners and students), and author/activists Katherine Albrecht and Liz McIntyre deride RFID as “spychips” (the title of their book). Still, RFID is in broad use already, in so many forms that it can be difficult to spot.

Step 1

Look for a heavy paper label on a retail item--for example, on a box, or on the tag of a garment. The label may be blank, or may have some minor printing on it. Both Wal-Mart and American Apparel stores use RFID labels.

Step 2

Examine the label for an antenna. An RFID chip by itself simply holds data. The antenna allows it to be read. This is typically copper, and in a square or squiggle shape.

Step 3

Look for a loose removable strip inside a book or package. The tag is typically a white strip. This is a high-frequency RFID transponder.

Step 4

Look for “contactless” or “smart" card portions on a gift card, credit card or identification badge. These do not require an individual to swipe the card; they use RFID technology. The E-ZPass for automatic toll collection is an RFID application.

Step 5

Ask if RFID is in use. Some increasingly common uses are in patient tracking and tracking children at theme parks and resorts, as well as in baggage tracking at airports (including Heathrow in London and McCarran in Las Vegas). Ford’s F150 trucks come with an optional tool-tracking utility which is RFID-based. None of these organizations hides the use of RFID.

Tips & Warnings

  • An RFID tag contains very little information, usually a single number. That number must be matched against a proprietary database. For someone to read the personal information on your electronic passport, he would also have to tap into the database maintained by the U.S. Department of State.