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Explained: What are RFID tags that will be used to track Amarnath pilgrims?

Amarnath Yatra: The government has decided to track all pilgrims using Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags. What are RFIDs and how do they work?

Written by Saurabh Kapoor , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: May 19, 2022 10:32:44 am
amarnath yatra 2022The annual Amarnath Yatra to the cave shrine of Lord Shiva high up in the Himalayas is among the country’s most revered pilgrimages.

After a high-level security review for the forthcoming Amarnath Yatra, the government has decided to track all pilgrims using Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags. What are RFIDs and how do they work?

What does RFID stand for?

Radio Frequency Identification. It’s a wireless tracking system that consists of tags and readers. Radio waves are used to communicate information/identity of objects or people to nearby readers – devices that can be hand-held or built into fixed positions like poles or buildings. The tags can carry encrypted information, serial numbers and short descriptions. There are also high-memory tags like the ones designed for use in the aviation industry.

Are there different types of RFID tags?

Yes. There are passive and active RFID tags. Active RFIDs use their own power source, mostly batteries. Active tags can ping information every few seconds like beacons, or they can get activated when a reader is in the proximity. Passive RFIDs, on the other hand, are activated through the reader using the electromagnetic energy it transmits. This is enough power for the tag to transmit information back to the reader. Active tags have a longer read range, around 300 ft, compared to passive tags.

How do RFIDs work?

RFID tags use an integrated circuit and an antenna to communicate with a reader using radio waves at several different frequencies – low frequency (LF), high frequency (HF), and ultra-high frequency (UHF). The message sent back by the tag in form or radio waves is translated into data and analysed by the host computer system. Unlike Barcodes, RFIDs do not require direct line of sight to identify objects. They also have a bigger range.

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Where are RFIDs commonly used?

They are practically everywhere. Retail giants use them for inventory tracking. RFID chips are used as access keys in labs. They are also built into credit cards and library books. In her Budget speech this year, Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman spoke about the government’s plan to roll-out e-passports. These are likely to be paper passports carrying RFID chips in the jacket. Currently, the FastTags being used for toll payments across the country are also RFID tags.

Is it possible to hack RFID tags?

Depending on data to be shared, grades of encryption can be introduced between the tag and the reader to verify credentials. Memory segments of the card can hold data encrypted with cryptographic keys. While a casual data theft is not possible, hackers can use ‘side-channel attacks’ to extract the cryptographic information. But that hack is not easy to pull off given that tag manufacturers continue to improve security features.

Why are RFIDs being used during Amarnath Yatra?

The decision to track all Amarnath Yatris using RFID tags was taken amid heightened security threat to the pilgrimage. The decision was announced after a high-level meeting chaired by Union Home Minister Amit Shah to review security preparedness for the Yatra. A statement by the MHA said: “The Chief Secretary of Jammu and Kashmir, said that for the first time every Amarnath Yatri would be given a RIFD card and would be insured for Rs. 5 lakh. A tent city, WiFi hotspots and proper lighting will be arranged on the yatra’s travel route.”

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