RFID, Coins and Currency

Last night, one of the fictional cable shows talked about how our (US) currency gives off radio frequency information, and when in large quantities such as a ransom payment, it gives off much more information.

Remember, this was a FICTIONAL show. But, how close are we to having RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) embedded into our currency?  It could happen.

This is an interesting commentary from RSA Laboratories on RFID in currency:

Will RFID tags be embedded in currency? If so, when?

Various media reports have suggested that there were plans in Europe to embed RFID tags in currency by 2005. It is the position of RSA Laboratories at this time that such a plan is highly unlikely in the next several years. Indeed, RFID tags do not seem likely to serve as a cost effective anti-counterfeiting measure at present. RFID tags might be used to help track currency. As explained in a scientific paper by RSA Laboratories, however, it is very difficult to provide tracking capabilities to law enforcement authorities without making those capabilities more generally available and thus jeopardizing privacy.

With a simple search via Google, several patent requests such as “Passive radio frequency identification system for identifying and tracking currency” and “Embedded RFID Verifiable Currency” can easily be found.

Plus, there’s significant discussion about tracking Euros, especially large denominations, with an RFID thread. From a technology perspective, here’s an article from 2003:  Radio ID chips may track banknotes. Along that same vein, here’s a discussion of the RFID Euro on a collector’s web site:  RFID Banknotes.

But, RFID information can also be attached to coins. Take a look at this 2007 article:  Canadian coins bugged, U.S. security agency says.  But as one gentleman in the article claims, “From a technology perspective, it makes no sense.  To me it’s very strange. You give the guy something with a transmitter that he’s going to spend — I mean, he might have it for an hour.”  He’s right, putting a transmitter on a coin for spy purposes does not make sense. 

A search for “RFID” on the Bureau of Engraving and Printing web site shows information about how RFID might help the visually impaired. However, some think a better optical reader for the current currency would be more cost effective and easier to do.

For more interesting (and scary) information check out this 2004 summary document FTC Workshop on Radio Frequency Identification: Applications and Implications for Consumers  from EPIC (Electronic Privacy Information Center) where they claim, “RFID should never be employed in a fashion to eliminate or reduce anonymity. For instance, RFID should not be incorporated into currency.” Then later in the document, they comment, “Money now poses a risk to privacy because governments are considering embedding RFID tags in currency.”

EPIC’s main web site’s RFID pages also provide more information along with more recent legislation proposed.  Scrolling down their page, they include a discussion on how to protect your privacy with the increasing technology and “Big Brother is Watching” concerns. Plus, they have links to many other web sites about the use of RFID technology.

One more site, RFID: Radio Frequency Identification Technology and its impact on privacy,  includes a discussion of RFID and lists a significant number of other web sites with details about the use of RFID technology, both helpful and a threat to our privacy.

Back to the origin of this post. The statements made in last night’s fictional show about RFID information in our currency appear to remain fiction, but they could become fact.

(On a side note, a couple of years ago, many of the technology sites suggested a hammer blow strategically placed was the best solution for the RFID chip in the new passports. In the one of the links above, an article discusses how the Dutch considered our e-Passport technology until they determined an individual’s passport information was easily copied and compromised from 20 feet away.)