RFID system devised to track conference attendees

Next time you go to a business convention, take a closer look at your name badge.

You probably won’t see anything without using a microscope, but embedded in that name tag could be a Radio Frequency Identification Device (RFID).

Alberta-based Database Information Services (DBiTS) is testing a system that tracks and stores conference registrants’ movements during an event.

The Registration Event Management System (REMS), which uses RFID technology, successfully cleared the first test of its tracking software recently at an annual Star Trek convention in Vulcan, AB.

“I’ve spent as much as an hour and a half in a pre-registered line, waiting to get my package, while convention staff went through an alphabetical listing to verify people,” Paul Carreau, president and CEO of DBiTS, said.

“I was thinking that there has to be an easier way to do this and that’s really where the idea came from. So, you walk through a reader with your tag, you’re in, the data’s captured, you’re verified.”

The RFID tags are scanned with fixed or handheld scanning systems. These systems can be situated at every booth during a convention, enabling it to track where visitors go.

Scanned information includes demographic data, such as age, income level and family size, which is then fed to a master database.

DBiTS said exhibitors will also benefit from the system by gaining access to the demographic stats of their visitors.

“It’s very difficult to get an accurate count in terms of how many people actually go into the booths,” Carreau said.

“We want to be able to turn to the exhibitor at the end of the convention and ask them if they would like a breakdown as to who is going into their booth and tailor that to their needs.”

With these benefits to visitors and exhibitors aside, some have questioned the privacy and security of this form of data collecting.

Jim Harper, director of information policy studies for the Cato Institute, sees RFID use as acceptable for tracking products, but has lobbied against its use on tracking people. After all, the tags aren’t new and have been in use since the early eighties.

Retailers like Wal-Mart have been using RFID for years to track its stock from the warehouse to the stores.

But the market has seen tremendous growth recently with billions being sold each year. The chips can cost as low as a few cents, last for about 20 years, and operate without batteries.

Harper had an issue with his personal data being tracked at an RFID information event.

“I spoke at the RFID Live conference in Orlando and they had two RFID tags in the name badges that they handed out,” Harper said.

“They didn’t tell anybody about it, or at least they didn’t tell me about it. And I think it’s a little ham-handed to do tracking of people using RFID with informing them of it very clearly.”

As the technology is used more widely, Harper warns that companies and governments need to be act responsibly and avoid crossing the line.

“If I’m a car salesman and I go to a car-related convention, the data about the booth I visited is not terribly concerning,” Harper said.

“But, if an RFID device were to reveal that I visited my psychologist weekly or that I had been to a doctor specializing in venereal diseases, that that would be a different consequence entirely.”

DBiTS said its taking these issues very seriously and that it does not track personal information other than what is necessary to book the convention. But, it said the system uses a relational database where such information is segregated out and never data mined.

David Swan, the company’s chief technical officer, said DBiTS will notify visitors of the tracking system.

“When you register for the convention, we tell this is what we’re doing and why we’re doing it,” Swan said.

The company also said it is working on a way for participants to grant access of their contact information directly to exhibitors. This is an attempt to negate the need for the traditional “business card in a fishbowl” system.

DBiTS’ goal is to have the full system working in the near future and shopping around for hardware suppliers. Its goal is to track 50,000 moving people per day in a 24 hour period.

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