February 1, 2005

RFIDs offer new technology for access, monitoring

One of the ubiquitous sights on campus is students and staff swiping and flashing their UCIDs. Though this isn't likely to change in the next few years, new technology— such as retinal and fingerprint scanners—is rapidly making card swipes obsolete.

The partial use of radio frequency identifiers (RFID), already prevalent in many of today's corporations, has been suggested to the University. One proposal includes "making [the UCID] useful for various kinds of access and monitoring by embedding some kind of transponder (such as RFID circuitry) in it," said Greg Jackson, vice president and chief information officer of the University.

RFID technology consists of circuitry configured to react to a certain radio signal emitted by a sensor mounted near a locked door. The card responds by emitting a signal of its own that includes a unique code. When the card is close enough, the sensor picks up this signal, checks the code against a database, and, if the user if authorized, allows entry.

According to Jackson, a full switch to RFID would be prohibitively expensive. He points out, however, that switching some of the card's functions to the new technology has potential. "Various entities on campus have sought proximity rather than swipe access, and so NSIT, Facilities, and others have been talking more focusedly about this," Jackson said.

There are, however, several problems inherent in an RFID switch. Foremost is the great cost of the change. In addition to replacing the approximately 20,000 UCIDs currently issued, there is a series of more subtle problems. "The places that want to use the RFID capability for access need to re-engineer their access systems, and the various authorization databases that feed the access controls need to be built and/or replaced," said Jackson, who also noted that the total cost could run into the range of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The current Chicago Card consists of five forms of ID: a picture, bar code, student ID number, name, and four magnetic stripes of data on the back used for access and stored-value purposes. Each of these is used by a different sector of the University.

The libraries and some other places use the first stripe to look people up in a database and unlock the turnstiles, Jackson said. "Some copy machines and NSIT printers use the stored-value stripe," he said. "The CTA buses use the photograph, and so forth."

The cards also present a possible security problem, as it could be difficult to quickly and easily notify all campus RFID systems to deny access if a card is lost or stolen. The technology is also quite vulnerable to anyone intent on cracking the code unless a long encryption key is used. Three Johns Hopkins University graduate students recently managed to crack an RFID code used in some car keys to prevent copies from being made.

Some students are concerned about the possible invasion of privacy with RFID technology. The card can trigger any nearby scanner without the holder knowing it. Some scanners even record the name on every card used to access the door, as well as the time of use. "I don't mind swiping enough for it to outweigh my concerns about the fact that my whereabouts would be known anytime I was near a sensor," said Margot Yopes, a first-year in the College.

There are several positive elements of RFID technology, including increased convenience. Students may be able to scan themselves into dorms more quickly. "Given the little ID wallets that the University gives out, you wouldn't have to fumble with them," said Nathan Whitehorn, a second-year in the College. Dining hall lines could also be expedited.

Some students have other concerns on their minds. "The IDs wouldn't break so easily because when you slide them in and out you kind of bend them," said third-year in the College Kevin Choi.

According to Jackson, a switch to RFID technology seems unlikely in the next couple years. "Replacing all these applications with an RFID and corresponding databases would be very expensive, and realistically isn't going to happen," he said.