POSTSCRIPT / October 20, 2009 / Tuesday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Facts and figures on RFID car tags

SURVEILLANCE: Some media friends and I got to talking last week about the high-tech RFID (radio frequency identification) tags that must be installed on motor vehicles upon registration starting January 2010.

One conccrn expressed is that the RFID would be used to track down vehicles and spy on their occupants. If your car was borrowed, or if you checked into a motel, or drove to a clandestine meeting, would your tag tell operatives where you and your car had been?

The answer is No. The simple reason is that the RFID sticker-type tag of the Land Transportation Office does not have GPS (Global Positioning System) capability that uses satellites to track GPS-equipped vehicles and help drivers navigate.

The RFID tag works like a grocery barcode being read, except that instead of an optical beam reading it, radio frequency waves are used for more accurate reading even as far as 10 meters.

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LIMITED ACCESS: Time is thus saved and error eliminated as the LTO officer checks on a vehicle without flagging it down or talking to the driver. He simply aims his handheld device (a reader) on the 4-inch x 2-inch RFID sticker on the windshield.

Only these information appear on his screen: RFID unique code, MV File No., Engine No., Chassis No., Plate No., MV Type, Color, Make, Series, Year Model, Body Type, MV Classification, Franchise, Route, Owner/Organization Name, Last Registration Date, and Alarms (settled & unsettled).

Transportation Asst. Secretary Arturo Lomibao, LTO chief, instructed the technical group working on the RFID project to make sure the owner’s address and phone numbers are not accessed.

I once asked Lomibao why so. He said this prevents the RFID tag from being used for harassment, mulcting, spying or invasion of privacy.

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PRICE ISSUE: Aside from fear of surveillance, another issue is cost. While the P350 one-time price breaks down to just P35 per year against its under-warranty lifetime use of 10 years, there are still some who think the tag is expensive.

We dug up comparative prices for similar devices and discovered that:

* The E-Pass for the South Luzon Expressway (SLEx) costs P1,800, which includes an initial load of P500 and uses an active tag good for three to five years.

(An “active” tag is powered by a battery, as opposed to the battery-less “passive” tag of LTO that is turned on by the beam from the handheld reader.)

* The EC tag used in the North Luzon Expressway (NLEx) costs P1,500, inclusive of an initial P500 load, also using an active tag good for three to five years.

* The Philippine ePassport costs P950, valid for five years.

* A few local schools use RFID technology for fast processing of students and personnel entering the campus.

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USES ABROAD: Similar technology is used in other countries:

* In Malaysia and Hong Kong, customers and commuters use Touch & Go and Octopus cards costing US$40 (almost P2,000) for speedy payments in transport and retail outlets.

* In Singapore, they use an EZ Link card to make their way through their mass transit system. The card costs US$12 (almost P600).

* In the United States, United Kingdom and Germany, RFID tags costing US$500 each (almost P2,500) are used for container and logistics tracking.

* There are also simple RFID tags that can be bought for only 10 US cents, but these are not designed like the LTO tag to withstand harsh environments (such as ultra-violet radiation, humidity, heat, etc.) over a long period.

Some toll-collection RFIDs in the US cannot be read unless the car slows to a crawl at the toll gate. The LTO’s tag can be read even at 120 kph within 10 meters.

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NET TAKE: There have been comments that at P350 per piece, and with some 5.5 million vehicles to be registered nationwide, LTO’s IT contractor Stradcom would rake in P1.925 billion!

That is a bit exaggerated. In a recent public presentation by Lomibao, computations showed that Stradcom would net only P14.62 from the P350 tag price.

From the gross of P350, the following are taken by the government: P 37.50 for value-added tax; P20.43 as LTO share that goes to the national treasury; and another P32.93 LTO share for its training program.

From the P259.14 left after the government bite, the following are subtracted: P40.52 as capital expenditure (for hardware, software, readers, network equipment); P98 as cost of the tag; P54.08 for contracted services (595 personnel for 18 months); and P51.92 for general administrative expenses.

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BENEFITS: To me as a vehicle owner, the top benefit of RFID is its being a red flag if my car were stolen (huwag na lang sana!).

Once the alarm is out, officers on the lookout merely read the RFID of vehicles that match my car’s description. (That will not be tedious since there are only a few of my model on the road.) The carnappers’ changing the license plate will not hide its true identity.

It is impossible to duplicate an RFID sticker. All over the world, each tag has a unique ID and is controlled by an industry organization called Electronic Product Code Global (EPC Global). This is certified by ISO 18000-6C.

And looking forward to when all vehicles are tagged and LTO records are fully computerized, Lomibao said registration will be breeze — a drive-through with fixed readers at LTO agencies accessing needed data via the RFID.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of October 20, 2009)

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