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Identification Documents—Mobile Technology Opportunities and Challenges December 10, 2012

Posted by kirbyr in Mobility.


A trope in science fiction plots is that characters’ personal information is consolidated into one master identification document, which can be a physical document or an electronic device embedded in a person’s body.  This master ID has information on a person’s finances, medical history, citizenship, and also tracks a person’s movements.  Our society is moving closer to the idea of a master ID—smartphones can now be used to check in for flights, or act as a credit card.  However the concept of location or movement tracking is absent.  College campuses present a great opportunity to enhance identification documents with mobile and location tracking technology.

Imagine a system which will use RFID tags to track user’s locations as they move around a university campus.  Each “user” of a college campus (student, faculty, and staff) will have an RFID tag embedded in their campus ID.  Similar to the master IDs found in science fiction, campus ID badges perform lots of different functions: store meal program information, act as a debit card for campus purchases, check out library books, and provide access to campus buildings.  Campus ID badges are routinely needed throughout the day, so most members of a campus community carry their ID badge with them at all times.  This makes ID badges the ideal location to embed an RFID tag in a campus environment.

RFID technology is at the point where the tags are small enough to easily embed into a standard ID badge the size of a state driver’s license.  The user may not even notice that the tag is incorporated into the ID badge.  In addition to the ID hardware components, RFID sensors and other sensors will be located in buildings, classrooms, and outdoor locations across the campus, such as near security phones.  These sensors will collect user’s locational information and forward this information on to a master control unit.  In addition, the RFID sensors could be programmed to perform smart building features, such as opening a door or turning on a classroom light.


The primary concern for system that tracks geographical movements of individuals is privacy.  Many users will feel creeped out by such a system and will need to be reassured that their information will be kept private.  A recent example from the news is that the Saudi Arabian government is using tracking technology in passports to send automatic alerts to male guardians when female family members leave the country [4].

An identification and location tracking system will have to strive to keep individual user’s identities private as much as possible.  Individual identity will be divulged to differing extents for different applications.  For example, a class role call that is populated through reading students RFID signals in their ID badges will only be available to the teacher of the class.  This information will be encrypted when it is transmitted to protect unauthorized access to the information.  For other applications, individual identities will be protected and that information can only be accessed by select university officials, within specified parameters.  Such as, during an emergency situation officials can access names of individuals within a building or room.  As always, federal student privacy rules (FERPA) will have to be followed.

Another privacy concern is that of unauthorized individuals intercepting the RFID signal to either gain information embedded in the RFID tag (skimming) or to track the individual (tracking) [3].  Skimming is not a huge issue, as the RFID tags will contain extremely limited information on the individual user; most information describing the user will be contained in the master control program and not on the RFID tags.  However, tracking is a valid privacy concern that will need to be addressed.

A second concern is cost.  Although individual RFID tags are cheap, installing RFID readers across an entire college campus is an expensive proposition.  Estimated costs are $9K per mounted building sensor and $75K for the master control program hardware and software [2].  The RFID tags in ID badges cost about $0.10 apiece.  Incorporating smart building features into the system will add additional costs.


Tracking location information using RFID for the population of a college campus can be useful for many purposes.  Instructors would no longer need to take classroom attendance, thereby freeing more time for learning purposes.  The system could incorporate intelligent building features, which have many benefits, including energy savings and security.  Emergency response would be improved, especially in high threat situations such as a campus shooting.  Location information can aid campus security plan a response by providing the number of individuals in an area, and their personal identities.  Finally, aggregated location information can be used to identify additional needs on a campus.  Examples include underused study areas or high demand for the gym.  This information can be used to reallocate space on campus or to plan for future needs.


[1] An Introduction to RFID Technology, R. Want, Pervasive Computing, Jan-March 2006, Vol 5, Issue 1, pages 25-33, IEEE CS and ComSec

[2] What it Costs to do RFID Asset Tracking the right way the first time, P. Sweeney, Insider’s Blog from the RFID Experts, June 2011: http://blog.odintechnologies.com/bid/64996/What-it-costs-to-do-RFID-Asset-Tracking-the-right-way-the-first-time

[3] The U.S. Electronic Passport FAQ, accessed 11/2012, http://travel.state.gov/passport/passport_2788.html

[4] Uproar over Saudi Women’s ‘SMS Tracking,’ accessed 12/2012, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-20469486



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