Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID) tags

Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID) is an identification system commonly used in retail stores. It relies on a small chip—implanted in a tag—that can record and store data such as a serial number, price or purchase record.

RFID tags can be attached to a large variety of individual items including merchandise, shipping containers and vehicles. They then use electronic scanners to read and track these tags.

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Uses of RFID technology

You've almost certainly encountered RFID technology in your life. RFID tags may be found in a variety of items, like:

  • credit cards with a tap-to-pay option
  • some mobile phones and smart devices
  • library books
  • medical supplies and devices
  • automobile tracking and ignition keys
  • automatic toll-collection devices placed in the vehicles of frequent users
  • Canadian ePassports
  • hotel key cards
  • microchip implants for pets

RFID tags have an individual identification code offering tracking capabilities beyond those of traditional printed barcodes. Each item can have its own RFID tag and carry a unique identity code. A company will therefore be able to track individual items throughout the supply chain. Not all electronic tags on retail goods are RFID tags. They may instead be radio frequency (RF) tags primarily used for security purposes. These do not have unique identification numbers and do not store data or allow linkages to other databases.

For more information, check out the Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) Technology page on the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada (OPC) website.

RFID technology privacy challenges

RFID technology may pose consumer privacy challenges. For example:

  • An RFID tag can be tiny and located where you can't see it. This feature can make it hard for you to know if a store uses the technology.
  • You can't tell by looking at an RFID tag whether it is still communicating its data or has been turned off. In theory, a tag can continue to be read after a product is paid for and taken from the store.
  • The potential exists for a computer system to link this product data with personal information linked to a credit, debit or loyalty card. Therefore, a retailer could get a detailed profile of your buying habits.

Under the federal Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA), there are rules that govern how organizations may collect, use or disclose personal information gained in the course of commercial activities. Canada's privacy legislation protects your privacy rights. This protection applies to any existing or future RFID applications that hold or link to your personal information.

Consumers who have questions about RFID should not hesitate to ask retailers for more information about how they use this technology. Concerns related to possible mishandling of personal information can be reported to the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada.