An article appeared in the October 2012 edition of Exhibition news, making some startling claims about the benefits of radio frequency identification (RFID) and near field communications (NFC). Unfortunately the explanation of the pros and cons by the author of the piece was confusing.
He said ‘At nearly all trade shows, a visitor has a badge with a barcode that must be scanned in order to access personal data.’ The implication is that the barcode itself contains personal data. It doesn’t. It is merely a graphic representation of a number. In the case of a badge, that number will usually be the unique ID number assigned to the attendee in the registration company’s database. It follows, therefore, that the number is only of use to somebody who has access to the database and the ability to interrogate it.
He went on to say ‘If an RFID wristband is broadcasting this data, it is available to anyone.’ There are various issues here: for one thing, the type of RFID chip used in event badges has a maximum range of around 1 metre. Anybody wanting to harvest data would need specialised equipment and even then all they would get would be a number because an RFID chip in a badge is merely an electronic barcode. There are RFID chips (such as those used in London Transport’s Oyster card) that transmit much larger quantities of data but they need to be held within about 1 centimetre of the reader and even then the data is normally encrypted.
The author of the original opinion piece seemed concerned about security on the one hand but then suggested broadcasting on Facebook the fact that somebody is away from home at a festival. Apart from this being ill-advised, such activity does not depend on the use of NFC technology. It could be done now.
At the same time, he ignored the downside of both RFID and NFC in the extra costs involved (an RFID enabled badge costs around 15 times as much as a badge with a barcode) and the inconvenience to attendees in the case of NFC. An RFID badge can be read at up to a metre, but he seems to favour NFC which will involve placing the badge within a few millimetres of a reader.
Both of these technologies are being enthusiastically promoted by their manufacturers but organisers need to be sure they fully understand the pros and cons before committing to spending their money.
(This is an edited version of a letter from Ken Clayton that appeared in the UK magazine, Exhibition News, December 2012.)