Radio frequency identification is popping up everywhere, from highway tollbooths to passports. Here’s what you need to know about this emerging technology to make your travel experience more convenient.
The use of radio frequency identification technology has become more widespread over the past decade. You might not even realize that you’re using it, but if you’ve ever paid with a contact-free credit card (Chase Blink, American Express ExpressPay, MasterCard PayPass) or swiped a “smart” subway pass, you’ve already put RFID into action.
While RFID makes our lives easier in many ways, the technology has raised some privacy concerns. Here’s what you need to know about RFID to help protect your privacy—and to help keep your information safe as a traveler.
What is RFID technology?
RFID tags are similar to bar codes, but they use radio waves to transmit information short distances. Most of us periodically use RFID technology by going through payless electronic toll centers on highways or utilizing the “Fastpass” admission system used at many amusement parks.
Some observers have expressed privacy concerns about how the technology could be used in the future to potentially track the movements of individuals or to unintentionally facilitate identity theft, but currently, RFID signals cannot travel more than 300 feet (91 meters).
RFID in passports and border crossings
Since the mid-2000s, U.S. passports have contained RFID chips. The government says the chips do not contain any personal information, but instead point to a secure database that allows border officials to access your photograph and other biographical information when you check in.
International travelers may want to take advantage of the U.S. government’s Global Entry, a program allowing low-risk passengers to scan an RFID card upon their return to the country to avoid long lines at customs.
In the summer of 2012, the United States and Mexico revamped their use of RFID to allow frequent travelers to cross the border more efficiently.
Other uses for RFID technology in travel
In the U.S., one of the more common ways the technology affects travelers is in the form of electronic toll lanes that require drivers to have an RFID tag. Fares are deducted directly from the pass, and drivers who don’t have the necessary electronic pass may be fined.
Rental car drivers are often affected by RFID. Those who rent cars in cities like Denver or Miami will be informed about nearby cashless toll roads that require prepaid access cards. In addition, some rental car agencies now allow renters to unlock vehicle doors with an RFID tag instead of a key.
Another common use for RFID is on subway passes. The chip in the card can store information about how much money is on the card and make additions when more money is added and deductions when the card is used.
And finally, travelers may want to think twice before “borrowing” that robe or towel from the hotel. Some hotels have begun embedding RFID chips in linens in order to cut down on theft and loss. Expect to see more and more merchants and service industries employing RFID to avoid loss in the future.
Scott Shetler is a freelance journalist and frequent traveler who enjoys national parks, urban nightlife, and everything in between. He blogs about his adventures at quirkytravelguy.com.
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