An Irish RFID Tale
Last summer, an Irish cabbie illustrated for me one of the unintended consequences of the use of RFID.
My family and I had just arrived in Dublin, and we were taking a taxi from the airport to the Citywest Hotel, where the 72nd IETF meeting was being held. This involved driving on the M50, a toll road. In the midst of heavy traffic, as we approached a toll barrier, the cabbie (while driving) reached over, opened the glove compartment, and removed a shielded antistatic bag containing a transponder. He attached the transponder to his windshield went through the toll barrier with the transponder allowing him to be billed for the charge.
I asked the driver why he didn’t just keep the transponder on the window. He explained that the transponders are used for more than just paying for tolls in Dublin. They’re also used to pay for parking charges at garages. Someone he knew had the misfortune of driving past a garage exit just as a car was coming out, and the passer-by’s transponder was read by mistake and charged for the exiting car’s parking. So this cabbie keeps his transponder “turned off” by putting it in a shielded bag in his glove box whenever he’s not actually using it. Pretty inconvenient.
Why not just put an on/off switch on each transponder? There is the question of cost, of course, but the bigger issue is that the transponders are bought by the toll collection authorities. If it was easy to turn the thing off, undoubtedly some fraction of people would forget, and the enforcement burden would rise (or the collection rate would fall) as a result.
The real problem here is mission creep. The transponders are being used in applications for which they weren’t designed. There aren’t many passers-by near a toll booth like there are near a garage exit. Perhaps there should be a button on the transponder to permit it to be used for any of these secondary applications. But of course the transponder has no way to distinguish its primary mission (road tolls) from secondary applications such as garage fees.
RFID has lots of interesting applications, and lots of problems too. The security and privacy concerns with RFID are well documented, but this is an issue I hadn’t considered. It was interesting to see how much a cabbie in Dublin knows about it.