RFID tags versus Bluetooth trackers in the privacy debate
Organizations considering asset tracking options must consider the effectiveness of a system and ensure employee privacy and security.
May 08, 2022For years, the notion of a tiny global tracking device was considered the ultimate tool for verifying the location of critical business assets. Thanks to the prevalence of tracking devices in action movies, as well as misconceptions about the technology behind GPS, there has been a wide gap between the fiction and reality of “track-anywhere” devices available.
The dystopian privacy issues of tracking devices in movies have so far not become a daily reality. That being said, privacy is indeed a global concern, with governments around the world regulating the balance between the need for asset tracking and privacy rights. When looking at the two tracking options – Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) and Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) – the issue of privacy is one consideration.
BLE-based asset trackers promote the advantage that any smartphone can read their location, providing a GPS-located network of billions of readers. A major downside is privacy. With a BLE tracker on that corporate laptop in your backpack, your location is known to your employer. Additionally, since any phone can receive the periodic BLE beacon, apps are available to associate a tag with an individual.
On the other hand, 433 MHz active RFID tags use fixed readers, usually located only at points of interest, such as offices or entry and exit points. When in range of a reader, 433 MHz beacons provide real-time location information. Once they are out of reach of fixed readers, however, the owner maintains their privacy. In many situations, 433 MHz active RFID strikes the right balance between protecting a company’s physical and digital assets and preserving the privacy of individuals.
For decades, companies desiring real-time asset tracking have used active RFID systems, which are extremely efficient, with battery life that can exceed seven years, excellent range and reliability, and various form factors for a range of applications. Recently, with new tracking devices such as Apple AirTags, ubiquitous tracking has finally become a viable consideration for asset tracking. Using smartphones as GPS-located readers, BLE beacons come very close to “all-work tracking,” touted as a great way to track your keys and wallet. With the addition of ultra-wideband (UWB) radio, distance and direction are improved to give location better than a few meters.
Problematically, the more effective and widespread the tracking technology, the greater the privacy concern. While various measures can be used to add a degree of anonymity, all trackers inherently allow for some degree of third-party tracking. Ever since Apple launched its Bluetooth trackers in 2021, they’ve been used for nefarious acts, especially harassment, like Sports Illustrated the model that Brooks Nader can attest to. Attempts at solutions have so far not solved the problem.
For example, Apple now has a feature that detects if you might have a tracker planted on you. This results in a fairly effective low-tech sound alert, as long as the stalker hasn’t already turned off the speakerphone. For Android users, the app provided by Apple must be open to detect potential harassment – and if you don’t carry a phone at all, this privacy feature is of no use.
Organizations considering asset tracking options must not only consider the effectiveness of the system, but also ensure that employee privacy and security are not compromised. What was once a matter of finding the best technical solution is now complicated by privacy concerns and human factors. With a BLE tracker on a corporate laptop, an employer has the information they need to monitor and potentially recover a lost asset. But privacy breaches can occur at many levels. If the employee has the item in their possession, its after-hours location is also known to the employer.
Consider a technology company with a flexible work policy for its staff. There are laptops assigned to employees, additional laptops for software testing, and other IT equipment that moves around. The IT manager runs a quarterly report to see which assets have been detected at least once in an office, as well as which ones might be missing altogether. Asset systems using network monitoring provide a good metric, but only if the device is powered on.
To solve this problem, the IT manager can consider BLE trackers, which offer the advantage of tracking almost anywhere. However, this is where the inevitable privacy issues arise, especially with personally assigned laptops, because the IT manager can now track the worker when that person places the laptop in a backpack and walks away. heads to the gym, then home, a cafe, or a doctor. Office.
This brings us back to looking at non-BLE active RFID tags, typically operating at 433 MHz. In the scenario above, a simple 433 MHz RFID system with reader coverage across company facilities gives IT managers useful information while protecting employee privacy once they leave the office. office. Unlike BLE, 433 MHz active RFID tags use fixed readers, typically located only at points of interest, such as offices or entry and exit points.
When within range of a reader, 433 MHz beacons provide real-time location information, but once they exceed the range of fixed readers – typically 100 meters (328 ft) – computer owners laptops preserve their privacy. Of course, active 433 MHz RFID tags can be read illegally using a suitable reader; however, the privacy risk profile of a few readers is very different from that of a network of BLE readers made up of millions of GPS-enabled phones. Having a contained read infrastructure is an inherent benefit of privacy.
Like everything related to security, the situation is changing. For now, at least, privacy concerns over phone-based trackers have persisted. For many scenarios, 433 MHz active RFID should always be considered when companies are selecting asset tracking solutions that balance protecting a company’s assets and preserving individual privacy. In the long term, the privacy issues of the small global tracker may be insurmountable, but never bet against technology to evolve, innovate, and solve.
Jon Guy is vice president of engineering for RF Code. With over two decades of experience, he has worked with companies such as Texas Instrument and Silicon Labs. Guy graduated from the Manukau Institute of Technology. You can connect with him on LinkedIn.
Exhibitors at LIVE RFID Diary! 2022 will offer RFID, BLE and other solutions for asset tagging. To learn more, visit the event website.