December 16, 2018 by Jason Bourne
We have talked a lot about Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags in the past.
They can be placed on stock in a supermarket, or items in the postal system, and you can keep tabs on them because of the tiny little radio transmitters and receivers.
And now, some researchers at Intel are using RFID to track people.
For many, a population of tagged and tracked citizens is the stuff that kept Orwell up all night, but the research here has noble intentions.
The system is dubbed Technology for Long Term Care (TLC), and aims to help you keep an eye on your elderly parents without the need to visit them every day.
One way of doing this is to see what the parent does around their home throughout the day, by tracking which household objects they use.
In a mock-up apartment, each object is fitted with a cheap RFID tag. "Mum" or "Dad" wear a special wrist strap which can detect which tags it is closest to.
By reporting what objects the parent is interacting with throughout the day, and for how long, the researchers say they can build up a pretty good picture of what they are doing.
Time spent with bathroom items indicates they are probably washing, while time spent with kitchen equipment means they are probably eating okay.
You can receive information about their movements over the internet, but can you be sure of what the person is doing?
"The state of the art right now is that you go to your mom's place and spend as much time as you need to figure out what's going on," says Intel researcher Matthai Philipose.
"If you spend an hour or two a week you've still got under 5% knowledge of what's going on.
"So an 85% accurate system like this still gives a huge improvement over the state of the art."
But he also says installing a webcam could intrude on the person's privacy and there is also the question of what to with the huge amounts of data the camera produces.
"If you want to know that something's happening in Mom's house using the camera, you have to sit there watching the video all the time," Mr Philipose adds.
"We've been pursuing what we call witness snippets. The sensor system in this case guesses that your Mom's taking her medication, but because you want to be really sure about that, it takes out just the three or four seconds of Mom taking her medication and shows just that part to you."
It has been argued that every successful deployment of RFID takes us closer to a world where tracking is the norm. But, is it possible to maintain our privacy in such a future?
In the Paul Allen Computer Labs at the University of Washington, steps are being taken to keep our personal information private.
Wearing an RFID badge, a man walks the four floors near his office and every few metres he passes one of the specially installed RFID sensors.
Each time a sensor pings his badge, the event shows up on the map, and his location is recorded.
His team has tagged many of their personal items, and specially written software produces lists of data about where and when each tag is spotted.
But how do you give yourself, and your friends, useful information about your location and that of your belongings, without invading the privacy of those who may be with you?
"One interesting and very useful application of RFID is to be able to track our belongings. So if I lend my book to somebody and later I need it, I would like to be able to see where my book is so I can go back and get it," says Assistant Professor Magdalena Balazinska.
"The problem is that by tagging my belongings and being able to see the location at any time, I can track people because I can lend them a tagged item and see that person's location by asking where that item is," she adds.
There are various ways to try to protect privacy and the team are working on several applications which allow you access, but not too much access, to all that wealth of information RFID promises.